producing lamb organically

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by Lynn Magedson

Marketing organically produced lamb is an idea that many small producers consider. Prior to claiming your product is organically produced, you must now be certified organic. Organically produced lamb is not the same as all-natural, free-range or grass-fed. A partial list of regulations required for organic production follows this commentary. Reading through them might give you new respect for the certified organic producer.

Prohibited from using synthetic chemical wormers and antibiotics, organic producers must use other methods to deal with internal parasites and disease. Proper pasture rotation, breed selection, intermediate host control (for parasites such as tapeworms and liver flukes) and manure management can all contribute to the goal of parasite reduction. Internal parasite control is considered the main obstacle to organically produced lamb.

Prior to pursuing any specific type of production, you should see what type of demand exists in your area. Will your target customer pay more for a certified organic product?

Do they trust you and not really care if an outside agency certifies your lamb? If it is needed, do you want to take the time to educate the consumer as to why your product is superior?

Depending on your location and management program, organic lamb production may or may not be feasible. Do you have reasonable access to organic feed and organic hay if it is needed for your sheep? Can you rotate pastures to help control parasites? Do you have the extra time needed for record keeping?

Lamb produced from a pastured flock is what most consumers think of as “organic” lamb. The producer must overcome the challenge of pasture rotation, internal parasites and forage quality. If sheep are watered from ponds, one must watch for liver flukes. Tapeworms are also spread by intermediate hosts found on pasture. Pasture raised lambs are not in close confinement and disease spread is usually minimal. In a well managed pasture, the forage can produce gain comparable to grain feeding. A grass-fed lamb will be leaner, have less fat (especially saturated kind), more Omega 3 fatty acids, higher amounts of beta carotene and vitamin E. The consumer will be purchasing more meat and less fat. Tests using cattle have shown that there is less risk of E. Coli from animals receiving more roughage than grain prior to processing.

Organically produced lamb from a feedlot has some advantage in that the sheep do not usually feed from contaminated ground. This can reduce the exposure to certain internal parasite larvae spread by manure. A clean (no ponds) water source harbors no hosts for liver flukes. Of course, confinement animal production has disadvantages also. Accumulation and disposal of wastes, higher feed costs, rapid disease spread and consumer acceptance are some of the more prominent concerns. Lack of exercise leads to fast gain but lots of fat. This might be great for the producer paid by the pound, but most consumers do not want to pay for fat.

Combinations of pasture and creep feeding of lambs is another method of production. Lambs have access to grain to which the ewes are excluded. Some rotational grazers creep feed or forward feed lambs by allowing lamb only access to a new paddock. After lambs graze the best available forage, the ewes are allowed on it.

Changes to the organic certification program have taken place in the last few years. Individual states used to have their own state run program for organic certification. Some states had no program at all. Now the United States Department of Agriculture will govern the process of organically produced products. This includes vegetables, fruits, meat, dairy, eggs and fiber products.

Here are some of the regulations for production of lamb. The regulations are from the United States Department of Agriculture. The standards will replace any previous state standards. Individual state’s departments of agriculture will administer the program. Contact the USDA for a complete list of organic standards and certification procedures.

Sheep used for organic production may not be the result of genetic engineering or cloning. AI is acceptable.

Lambs shall not be deliberately separated from ewes sooner than two months.

An identification system which ensures the identity of organically produced sheep throughout the life cycle (ear tagging or individual marking).

Feed (grain, hay, pellets) fed to livestock shall be certified organically grown. This includes the ewes as well as the lambs. If you have bottle-raised lambs, they must be fed organically produced milk. The organically produced feed CANNOT contain : hormones, antibiotics, other prohibited growth promoters, plastic pellets for roughage, manure refeeding, mammalian or poultry animal by-products, urea or any materials listed on the national prohibited materials list.

Pastures or field units shall be certified organically maintained. No chemical fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides or other restricted materials.

Synthetic vitamin and mineral supplements can be used when organically produced are not available AND nutritional deficiency is documented.

A producer cannot use synthetic internal parasiticides on slaughter stock. Instead a program based on fecal exams, culling of seriously infested animals, pasture rotation, manure management and vector and intermediate host control using allowed materials.

For animals other that slaughter stock, a producer may use synthetic internal parasiticides. The use of synthetic parasiticides on breeder stock can only be done after the above program steps have been used.

Antibiotics or synthetic medication (other than vaccinations) are not allowed.

In addition to the above items, proper living conditions and appropriate shelter must be provided. Records must be maintained on feed and health care and producers may be asked to provide residue testing of feed, meat or food product.

If sheep become ill and treatment with a prohibited material is necessary to prevent suffering or death of the animal, the producer must provide treatment and divert the animal to a conventional flock or market. Failure to provide treatment to sick animals in order to maintain organic certification is grounds for revocation of certification.

During processing of lamb meat, the organic meat cannot come in contact with non-organically produced meat. No synthetic materials may be used (preservatives, coloring, flavoring, texturizers, emulsifiers) during processing.