What are the variations between lambs and sheep?
Understanding the distinctions between sheep and lambs can be a little confusing, as most individuals use the words interchangeably! We’re going to go through the main differences between sheep and lambs, so you can say which is which easily.
Age is the principal distinction between sheep and lambs. Lambs are sheep that are up to a year of age. When they are over one year of age, lambs are called sheep.
The word sheep is a term for all ages. This refers to new baby lambs as well as older breeding stocks or animals for pets. The word sheep also refers to both male and female animals and to producers of both meat and wool.
Lamb is simply a term for sheep under the age of one year. Age really matters when sheep are sold. Animals under 12 months of age will be advertised differently and will carry more cash than animals over 12 months of age.
Where all this becomes a little complicated, the term used to describe the meat of a sheep less than one year old is also lamb. Mutton is the word for sheep meat which comes from older animals.
How to say a sheep’s age
How do you say the age of a sheep, because the age of the sheep is so important in the sales price and the value of the animal? It’s actually straightforward, by the teeth.
Sheep get two teeth when they are one year old. Such teeth are permanent. It gets two more teeth per year before the animal is four, so by her fourth birthday, a ewe will have a total of 8 teeth. The only way to assess the age of a sheep reliably is by looking at its mouth.
Features of a mature sheep
Ewes, rams and occasionally wethers (in the cases of sheep with very valuable wool or pets) that are over one year of age include mature sheep.
Mature sheep are taller than lambs of the same breed and have a complete set of teeth, usually a more rounded out body. Mature sheep will also give their body as a whole a more balanced appearance, while young lambs look out of proportion, they are gangly and all legs.
Reproduction is the work of a mature sheep, both male and female. These sheep are kept in order to grow a lamb crop next year.
In a ripe sheep:
When nursing lambs, Ewes may be full bodied but not obese and have an udder.
Rams tend to be significantly larger than ewes and have a broader brow, a more rugged look and a scrotum (most easily seen when viewed from behind the sheep).
In general, mature sheep will flock well, some breeds will flock more than others, and will want to remain with the group. As lambs do not flock well, moving a group of mature sheep is better than moving lambs.
At the county fair, the Merino Ox.
This is a lovely ram from Merino. Due to his overall height, it is easy to tell that he is a mature sheep and that his horns have begun to curl. His horns would still be shaped like a crescent moon if he was younger.
Meat from mature sheep is referred to as mutton
The meat is called mutton from mature sheep. It will go through the food chain when a ewe or ram gets past her or his useful life. Meat from these older animals has more flavour and is preferred over lamb by more conventional eaters, especially if the lamb has been fed with grain. More like the full flavoured meat that they grew up consuming back home, the mutton tastes.
We have found that a full-sized sheep carcass, over a year old, can produce much more meat than a younger lamb. In terms of meat yield per animal mutton, if you purchase animals by the head, you get more meat. This makes the best use of the animal itself, then reproduces and yields meat well. If you want to learn more, here is a link to an article I wrote describing the differences between lamb meat and mutton.
A lamb’s characteristics
There are uncoordinated and lanky young lambs. They begin to develop quickly and get good coordination and become very fast. As they grow, the legs will now look to be proportional as they get more muscle and grow into their legs.
The lambs are spunky and fast, but like adults, they don’t flock well. It is not as quick to move a group of weaned lambs as to move a group of adults, they just act a little differently. It’s difficult to move a group of young lambs, like when mothers go to a new pasture and a few babies are left behind. They’re not at all flocking up (a frustrating experience to say the least).
How quickly lambs grow
Lambs that are fed only on grass would end up slower (reaching market weight) than lambs with access to creep feed. Consider creep feeding the lambs if you have a small pasture available and are already rotating pastures using a high stocking rate (lots of animals per acre). Creep feeding the lambs implies supplying them with extra feed that will make the pasture you have last longer.
Grass eaten only by lambs is nice for the animals, but it will take a little longer than supplementing with feed, as described above. Forage feeding alone is the standard method of feeding ruminants, with the lambs having a final weight of around 8 months, depending on the available forage.
The genetics of the flock, especially the ram, since it is genetically half of each lamb, will have a major impact on how quickly the lambs develop. Sheep meat breeds will also develop faster than sheep wool breeds. In addition, a hybrid (cross bred) lamb can grow faster and be more vigorous in general than a purebred lamb.
When lambs meet market weight,
At 6 months of age, most lambs hit market weight. The weight depends on the conditions of breeding and feeding, so live weight is anywhere from 80-110 pounds. Again, this greatly depends on the breed and the circumstances in which the lambs are raised.
When they have filled out their frame (bone structure) with a decent amount of muscle, the lambs are finished and they have a fat cover on their bodies.
Some breeds, including Cheviots, prefer to finish out early and at a lower scale. We usually go to the livestock auction when they still get top dollar when the pen of Cheviot lambs comes in. Even though they are a smaller sized lamb, they look alert and spunky and have a chunky body, between 50-60 pounds of live weight.
Like most wool breeds and the larger framed meat breeds, some breeds of sheep end at higher weights. First of all, these breeds put on frame then require time to put on the muscling to fill out the frame, ensuring that when they achieve completed body condition, they will be a larger lamb.
Meat from sheep less than a year old is known as lamb.
Lamb meat is obtained from lambs that are less than one year old. This seems to create some misunderstanding, because for most animals the name of the meat is different from that of a live animal, such as deer and venison or cattle and beef, with the word for the meat and the word for the live animal being the same.
Lambs raised for meat are usually kept for 6 months or so, but that depends on the genetics of the sheep being used and the farming method. The best weight for other farms to sell their lambs arrives earlier, so that the animal is younger. Many Amish sheep farmers around here, for example, sell younger lambs in the 50-pound range. These lambs will be more of a roasting size, like for a family dinner on a special occasion.
And why the difference? Not all animals and systems run in all environments, the animals and the system specifically need to be fitted to the farm. This implies that for all farms, what is best for one farm is not best.
Lamb meat does not come from baby lambs,
In the supermarket, people see lamb chops and believe that because the lamb chops are smaller than a pork chop, the lamb chop must be from a very young lamb, not like that. In particular, lamb chops must be from an older and larger lamb since it would have a larger piece of meat.
Lambs have only a typical body shape that has not been dramatically distorted by new, larger-and-faster-are-the-only-two-things-that-matter breeding practises that leave out health and longevity or compensate with drugs for poor health.
Chickens are a good example here. It takes 6 months for a typical breed chicken to mature, and in 47 days a broiler (the most common meat chicken in stores) reaches maturity! Huh! Yikes! Lambs are still raised using conventional genetics, but luckily there is no variant of broiler chicken lambs.
To be clear, a well-grown and stable lamb (so bigger) does better than a peer than it does (smaller) in the same circumstances. This is standard success in a group. There are still very great farmers, not just great growers, so there is no need for freaky genetics to make this happen. This is only natural variability in genetics.