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The Local Food Report
As we re-imagine our relationships to what we eat, Local Food Report creator Elspeth Hay takes us to the heart of the local food movement to talk with growers, harvesters, processors, cooks, policy makers and visionaries

What Happens to Grass-Fed Lamb During a Drought?

Elspeth Hay
The normally green pasture has been reduced to a dry, dusty area.

Simon Thorrold and his border collie Quinn are moving sheep in a dry, dusty pasture. This year, in addition to COVID-19, he and fellow sheep farmer Diana Wickman face another challenge: a level 2 statewide drought. This July was the second hottest on record for Massachusetts, and most areas are in a rainfall deficit of 1 to 3 inches. Diana and Simon are committed to raising grass-fed lamb—they think it’s better for the people who eat their meat, for their sheep, and for the environment—and some people would say it’s also delicious—but this year, the grass just isn’t growing. Back in the barn, Diana loads up a bucket.

“So this unfortunately is grain and we’re feeding this right now because we’re kind of in a drought and the grass isn’t growing so we’re really interested in preserving the health of the grass all the time and so we’ve had to pull the sheep off and believe it or not grain is cheaper than hay. And so we’re feeding a little bit of grain and a whole lot of hay, and hoping that we can get some rain.”

Diana and Simon had to start supplementing with grain and hay this year in mid July. Last year the farm’s roughly 45 rams, ewes and lambs were entirely grass-fed, rotated on 13 acres of pasture. Today, you can hear the dry grass crunching underfoot as we walk out to where the flock waits, hungry.

Normally, rotational grazing works by moving sheep frequently through quarter to half acre blocks of pasture using electric fencing.

“So you can see we’re probably standing on about an acre right now, cordoned off here and they only moved in here yesterday and they’ll probably be out of here tomorrow,” Diana said.

I asked how they manage the rotational grazing and how often do they move when it’s not a drought.

“So movement depends on the quality of the pasture at the time the density of the grass so we’re constantly every day we look at it we walk through it we take a look at the sheep you can gauge how hungry they are really when you look at a sheep if you look in front of the hips you can tell whether they’re—they’ve got all these stomachs right?—and you can tell whether they’re full and where they are in digestion so if you come down and you see sucked in stomachs you can tell they haven’t been eating,” Diana said.

Like cows, sheep are ruminants—herbivores with four stomachs—and they’re meant to eat forage, which is basically grass or hay. Grain can be hard on their digestive systems, which is why Diana and Simon are supplementing mostly with hay. But given the drought, feeding a little grain is better than letting the animals go hungry. The lambs born this past spring are the meat Simon and Diana will bring this fall to market.

“So there’s a facility in Westport Mass called Meatworks and we tend to do our like standard cut we usually get neck, loin chops, breast roll, leg, rack, and sirloin chops and then ground. So everything that isn’t one of those cuts goes into the ground and it’s really important when you decide to grind that you think about what’s going into it because that determines the fat content. So when you go to the grocery store and you see you know 90% lean and 10% fat that’s just a variation on what cuts are being put into your ground.”

Diana and Simon aim for a fat content of roughly 20-25 percent—any leaner, she says, and the meat gets dry. And while they wait for rain, Diana is eating a few last packages of last year’s ground lamb meat from the freezer.

“Yes! I actually just had it yesterday night and again today for lunch. I like a lot of the Indian dishes with it so we just made a curry that had peas in it and some coconut milk and it was fantastic we had it with some na’an and some rice I mean the legs and the rack are just a little bit of olive oil salt and pepper are really all you need on them it’s delicious. But it’s really rewarding to you know get to bring a product like this to the local market and then to have it in your freezer at home and have it on your plate and know it was something you grew and loved and raised from the ground up.”

Diana Wickman and Simon Thorrold are working in partnership with the Town of Falmouth to use their grazing sheep to keep a town-owned parcel open as pasture land. Next week on the Local Food Report Elspeth will talk with Simon about how border collies and sheep have evolved together—and how the dogs are indispensible partners in bringing us high quality grass fed lamb.  

Learn more about Peterson Shepherds here

An avid locavore, Elspeth lives in Wellfleet and writes a blog about food. Elspeth is constantly exploring the Cape, Islands, and South Coast and all our farmer's markets to find out what's good, what's growing and what to do with it. Her Local Food Report airs Thursdays at 8:30 on Morning Edition and 5:45pm on All Things Considered, as well as Saturday mornings at 9:30.