As the days grow shorter in the fall, a female sheep’s reproductive system fires up and old Mr. Ram comes around to make sure there will be lambs born five months later — usually March to May here in the green hills of western Sonoma County.
This cycle has several excellent effects that help make Sonoma County the food paradise that it is. Right after the lambs are born, they stay with their mothers, suckling them.
If the dairy is organic, these lambs are born from mothers fed only organic feed during their last stage of pregnancy, and the lambs themselves are given no antibiotics, hormones, GMO feeds, chemical parasite dips or chemical worming agents.
In sheep dairy operations, lambs are typically weaned off their mothers’ milk at 30 to 40 days old. The lambs at that stage can digest forage, such as spring grasses and wildflowers, and in fact are more efficient converters of forage into meat than lambs who stay on mother’s milk for late weaning.
Nature, in anticipation of lambing time in the spring when a typical ewe will have two lambs, cranks up the ewe’s milk production, and then slowly drops it by about half.
Once the lambs are weaned, our local cheesemakers start their work in earnest.
Soyoung Scanlon at Andante Dairy in Petaluma makes seasonal sheep’s milk cheese at this time of year, and the folks at Bellwether Farms off Valley Ford Road in Petaluma produce their sheep’s milk cheeses, ricotta, and yogurts in a more cyclical pattern.
If you haven’t tried sheep’s milk yogurt or any of Andante’s sheep cheese, you owe it to yourself to find some at the Nugget Markets in Glen Ellen or Sonoma, Whole Foods markets around the county, Santa Rosa Community Markets in Santa Rosa and Sebastopol, Raleys, and any of the Oliver’s markets in the county. Sheep’s milk cheeses are superior nutritionally and in flavor, and the yogurt puts most commercial yogurt to shame.
Local spring lamb will start showing up in the meat cases of our markets within the next month or two. The lambs will have been eating our local annual grasses and forbs, giving their meat a fresh and unique flavor.
Once the green grasses turn golden, many will be given some supplemental grain — mostly corn — until slaughter. Since so much corn is genetically modified these days, you may want to avoid grain-finished lamb unless it’s organic. In that case, look for lamb that is guaranteed “100 percent grass fed.” Don’t be tempted by murky terms like “pasture raised.”
It’s not the same thing. But “100 percent grass fed” is lamb grown on our grassy hills and is rich in omega-3 essential fatty acid and in vitamin B-12.
Strangely, most Americans don’t eat lamb — the national average yearly consumption of this delicious meat is just 8/10ths of a pound per person. In New Zealand, by contrast, it’s 50 pounds per person per year, and in Australia, it’s 37 pounds.
Lamb consumption in the U.S. tends to be heaviest on the country’s coasts where the greatest number of folks with a Mediterranean cultural heritage live, and where lamb is a staple part of the diet.
If you’re interested in humanely raised, organic lamb, Google Sonoma County Lamb Producers and take your pick. You may find that local, organic lamb carries a premium price. Part of that is the fact that sheep are prone to parasites that most producers treat with chemicals that aren’t allowed in organic production. So organic farmers work with the life cycles of the parasites to defeat them, and this takes extra work and time.