In today’s age consumers are highly interested in the quality of the products they eat. This is especially true when it comes to meat such as mutton.
Quality meat is generally defined by its compositional quality and palatability. Signs of quality meat are good conformation, a bright red color and some marbling or fat. Poor quality meat will have indicators as well. A sheep carcass that is lacking volume and muscle points to inadequate nutrition. Meat with a callused eye indicates bruising to the animal. Dark colored meat suggests a lot of undue stress on the sheep. Blood splashes on meat are another sign that a sheep has been subjected to stress and rough handling.
Quality mutton starts with responsible sheep producers who care about the health and welfare of their animals. Producers should provide their sheep with a healthy and comfortable existence that is as stress free as possible. Stress in sheep can come in two main forms, physical and psychological. Physical stress includes hunger, thirst, fatigue, injury or temperature extremes. Fear, rough handling, unfamiliar environments and neglect are examples of psychological stress. In each case there are steps that can be taken to significantly lessen or altogether eliminate these stresses.
There are several options when it comes to feeding sheep but the best diet is usually centered around both grain and pasture forage. Early on it is helpful to supplement a sheep’s diet with creep feed. As a sheep matures it should be introduced to good quality feed and whole grains such as shelled corn or barley. As grazing animals, sheep also require tender plants to keep their digestive systems healthy so forage should make up a big part of their diet as well. Hay can be used during the winter season or dry months when forage plants are not readily available. White salt blocks are recommended over trace mineral blocks because it might contain copper, which is toxic to lambs. Finally, it goes without saying that sheep need fresh water each day.
Related to nutrition is maintaining clean feeders and waterers. It is best to place them at a height that prevents contamination from animal wastes. Also when it comes time to replenish food and water, scrub and disinfect each container.
Transportation plays a large part in fatigue but there are several things that can be done to make this easier on sheep. During the loading process sheep should be moved slowly and not forced to trot. Sheep should not be overcrowded onto vehicles since it could lead to trampling and ventilation problems. During transportation animals need adequate protection from the elements. Sheep that need to be relocated to another area should not be left standing in a trailer or on a concrete floor for hours at a time. By law animals that are traveling 28 hours or more must be allowed to rest for at least five hours and have access to food and water.
In order to prevent falls and crippling injuries there should be a non-slip surface in all areas where sheep walk. A couple simple solutions include roughening an existing floor with a grooving machine or placing down mats constructed from woven tire treads. Other areas that can cause cuts and bruises to lambs are the entrances to gate fences and chutes. These crowded transport areas should be regularly inspected for protruding bolts or broken parts with sharp edges. Broken parts should be repaired immediately and sharp edges can be padded with woven tire treads. Equip gates with a tie back to prevent them from swinging out into the alley and bruising the sheep’s loin area.
Diseases in sheep can be prevented by providing proper cleanliness and pest control. Areas such as the sheep’s eye, nose, jaw and rectal area should be inspected regularly for signs of parasites. Caretakers should also take note of clinical signs of disease such as isolation, loss of appetite, weight loss, diarrhea and tapeworms found in stool.
To help prevent disease in sheep, ensure that living spaces are kept clean, have proper animal density rates, restrict traffic flow from people and vehicles, ensure good ventilation and offer adequate nutrition. Whenever new sheep are acquired, they should be dewormed and isolated from the rest of the flock for at least 30 days. Better nutrition, coupled with rotational grazing, also helps to offset the effects of parasites.
A normal temperature range for sheep is between 101 to 103 degrees Fahrenheit. Lambs are especially sensitive and can die if their body temperature dips to 98 degrees or below. If you suspect that a lamb is too cold, place it in a warming box until its temperature returns to normal. To prevent losses due to hypothermia, make sure that sheep have a well-sheltered and warm area to live in. During warmer months provide shade and use bedding that does not hold heat. If the sheep are in an indoor enclosure provide proper ventilation and utilize windows or fans when the temperature gets over 75 degrees Fahrenheit.
Fear is most evident in sheep during handling, isolation, transport and new environments. Sheep are naturally scared of people. When interacting with sheep always move slowly, calmly and quietly. Sudden movement and loud noises will spook them. If you need to catch a sheep, never lift it off the ground by the leg, head, ears, tail or wool unless in an emergency. The proper way to catch a sheep is with one hand on the rump and the other under the muzzle, keeping the sheep as close as possible to your legs.
Sheep are more comfortable being in a flock and will quickly become fearful if they become isolated. It is best to keep them together, especially during transport when they are in an unfamiliar environment.
Practice loading and moving sheep for shorter distances to get them used to travel. Whenever possible it is best to provide sheep with similar environments to one that they were in before. Sheep that are moved from one location to another need time to adjust to their new environment before any major handling takes place.
Neglect comes in many forms, but the most common are failure to provide adequate water, food, shelter, or necessary care.
Slaughter should be done in a quick and humane way. If the sheep is stressed before and during slaughter, its muscle glycogen levels will be used up which will cause a dark, firm and dry meat.
Afterwards the meat must be properly handled and stored. If it is chilled too rapidly after slaughter the muscles may undergo extreme contraction, which will result in very tough meat when cooked.
If followed correctly these basic practices can go a long way in helping the sheep producer put out the best quality meat that they can and make the consumer feel better about the food they purchase.