Jerad Jaborek, Graduate Research Associate, The Ohio State University
Now is the time of year when the majority of winter lambs are being weaned. After weaning, these lambs will be sold at the sale barn
or retained on the farm to be placed on feed to reach market ready weights. Have you ever considered that the way we manage these lambs will affect the flavor intensity of the sheep meat produced from these lambs?
According to 2015 National Lamb Quality Audit, which conducted surveys with people working in the lamb supply chain (retailers, food service, and purveyors) to rank the importance of quality attributes. Eating satisfaction was the most important attribute to survey participants and was commonly defined as the flavor or taste of lamb. When participants were asked how they would define lamb quality, responses such as “flavor/taste”, “good flavor”, “flavorful”, or having “mild to medium flavor” or “rich flavor” were used. The consistency of American lamb was reported as being a threat to the American sheep industry, while imported lamb was more consistent product.
At The Ohio State University, research was conducted to investigate how the diets fed, animal age, and animal sex would affect the flavor intensity of the sheep meat produced. Lamb flavor is characterized by flavor compounds that give sheep meat a distinctive flavor compared to other species. Therefore, lamb flavor intensity can range from mild (bland) to very intense (muttony).
In this study, a whole shell corn (grain) diet or an alfalfa pellet (legume/forage) diet was offered to sheep. Lamb flavor intensity was greater from sheep that consumed alfalfa pellets compared to the whole shell corn diet. More off-flavors were also noticed from sheep that had consumed the alfalfa pellet diet.
This study also investigated the effect of animal age on flavor intensity by comparing ewe lambs (5-7 mo.), yearling ewes (13-14 mo.), and mature ewes (3-9 yrs.). Meat from mature ewes had a greater lamb flavor intensity and off-flavor intensity when compared to the meat from lambs, with meat from yearling ewes being intermediate.
In the sheep industry, particularly in Western sheep feeding operations, it is common that market ready lambs are retained due to the seasonal demand for lamb products. As a result, these “long-fed lambs” remain on feed and become older, heavier, and fatter. This study also compared lambs (5-7 mo.) that were on feed for about 100 days to reach 140 lbs. and long-fed lambs (11 mo.) that were on feed for about 200 days to reach weights around 200 lbs. Results showed that long-fed lambs had a significantly greater lamb flavor and off-flavor intensity compared to the typical market ready lambs.
In the U.S. it is more common practice to feed wethers instead of ram lambs. Therefore, ewe and wether lambs were compared in this study. The results showed that there was no flavor differences between ewe and wether lambs. However, previous research has demonstrated that rams have a greater flavor intensity when compared to ewes and wether lambs.
Knowing these factors that can affect flavor intensity of sheep meat and the preferred lamb flavor intensity of your consumer can help you manage your sheep in a way to provide your consumer with a consistent lamb product that they desire every time.
Editors Note: For further information regarding the rearing effects on lamb flavor intensity, please refer to Jerad’s Master’s Thesis by following the link.