by Sally Colby
Most who raise small ruminants are aware of the growing demand for sheep and goat meat. However, despite this trend, U.S. production of lamb and mutton has been steadily decreasing while lamb imports are increasing.
Lyssa Seefeldt, Extension ag educator in Wisconsin, said that although the U.S. doesn’t track population numbers based on religious affiliations, various sources make it clear that ethnic populations are expanding, and that spells opportunity for those who raise small ruminants. The demand for sheep and goat meat for a variety of ethnic holidays provides an opportunity for farmers to expand marketing efforts and make a profit in a challenging agricultural climate.
While specific religious affiliations are not tracked, Seefeldt said ethnic populations are recorded via U.S. census data. “One target population we may market to is Hispanics,” she said. In 2019, the Hispanic population in the U.S. was close to 60 million. About two-thirds of this population self-identify as being from Mexico. Other countries represented include Puerto Rico, Cuba, El Salvador, Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Columbia, Honduras, Ecuador and Peru. People in these countries celebrate several holidays throughout the year, each with different requirements for the preferred size and type of sheep or goat.
Muslims are another growing population seeking lamb and sometimes goat meat. They want high-quality young lambs and will choose American lamb over imported lamb. Muslims are more likely to purchase larger quantities of lamb or goat to serve at large family gatherings. While some prefer to purchase a whole lamb, many opt for ground or stew meat. When possible, Muslims prefer Halal processed lamb or goat. Lambs or kids should be blemish free, and for most holidays, this sector will choose intact males with no wounds, scars or broken horns.
Now is the ideal time of year to develop a plan for next season’s ethnic marketing. Targeting sales for any ethnic market requires producers to have market-ready lambs or kids at the ideal desired weight for each holiday. To have suitable animals for any ethnic market, producers must calculate each management step, from breeding to marketing, backwards from the date of the holiday.
It’s important to remember that the dates of most ethnic holidays vary from year to year. While the dates for Jewish and Christian holidays fluctuate within a fairly predictable timeframe, Muslim holidays are based on a lunar calendar and move back on the calendar by 11 to 12 days each year. For example, in 2022, Ramadan was April 2 through May 1. In 2025, the same holiday falls between Feb. 28 and March 29.
Because Muslim holiday dates move each year, breeding season for ewes and does will be at different times each year in order to have lambs or kids at the right age and weight for holidays. Seefeldt said it’s important to be familiar with the rate of gain potential for the type or breed of lambs or kids being raised. When newborns have a good start, it’s possible for lambs to achieve an average daily gain of 0.6 to 0.8 pounds. Seefeldt referenced a study showing that lambs fed a whole shelled corn diet finished with fewer days on feed, but lambs had greater fat deposition, which is undesirable for most ethnic markets.
Regarding goat growth, Seefeldt noted there’s variability among breeds. Dairy-type goats gain differently than meat-type goats, while dairy x meat crosses average in between. Daily gains, especially up to three months, range from one-third to a half pound daily. However, some kids may gain as little as a quarter pound per day. In general, kids gain 10 to 15 pounds each month from birth to weaning, and from eight to 12 pounds each month after weaning.
The rate of gain influences how fast kids are ready to market. A target weight of 40 pounds is a reasonable goal for faster growing kids. If kids weigh seven pounds at birth, they’ll need to gain 33 pounds to reach goal weight. Assuming a half pound of daily gain, growthy kids require about 66 days to achieve market weight.
The figures to keep in mind when developing a marketing plan include a gestation period of 147 to 152 days, feeding period, auction dates, holiday dates and size/weight desired. Remember that sheep and goats’ heat cycles are influenced by day length and conception rates are usually highest between late August and January. Not all does or ewes will conceive on the same heat cycle, and in some cases, depending on breed, females may come into heat out of season.
For a holiday that falls in early August (such as the Muslim holiday of Ashura), auction dates would be from late July through early August. If a lamb will be marketed at 70 pounds for this holiday, subtract an assumed 10-pound birthweight and then add 60 pounds of gain necessary to reach market weight. At a half-pound gain per day, it will take approximately 120 days for the lamb to reach market weight. The target date for lambing for this market is April 11 – 17, which means breeding in mid-November.
For those selling lambs or kids for the July 4 Hispanic market, sale dates would be late June through early July. Lambs or goats should be 25 to 45 pounds or 55 to 120 pounds, respectively, depending on buyer preference and other factors such as preparation (whole roasted or smaller cuts) and the number of people being served. If it takes 90 days on feed to reach 35 pounds, the birthdate should be late March to early April, which means a breeding date from late October to early November.
Keeping accurate records is essential for raising lambs or kids for ethnic markets. Be aware of when does or ewes tend to start cycling and make sure rams or bucks are fertile prior to breeding season. For those who plan to use CIDRs for estrus synchronization or out-of-season breeding, familiarize yourself with the proper use and timing for optimum results.
A gestation table will help the planning process. A chart of ethnic holidays through 2025 including the associated religion is available at sheepandgoat.com/ethniccalendar.