Yes, I am the farmer who occasionally (especially for holidays) comes to market with four-legged babies and their bottles in tow. Sometimes it’s strictly for fun, such as on Easter and Halloween, but at other times it is out of necessity when there are newborns needing fed every few hours.
Each time I have a critter riding shotgun, though, I am amazed at how many people do not know the differences between sheep and goats. Furthermore, in speaking with customers about other meats, many are unaware of the various nomenclatures associated within a species or the regional names assigned to the same cut of meat.
So, here’s a brief run-down of some of the terms you may hear your farmer use when discussing their livestock.
What’s in a Name?
“What kind of cows do you raise?” is the most often asked question to beef farmers. Answers can include breeds like Angus or Piedmontese, depending on which vendor you patronize. Sometimes you might hear a term, like steer (castrated male) or heifer (young female) and wonder what the heck is that. In agriculture, names are given to denote the assorted stages in maturity and sexes within a species.
In keeping domestic livestock for meat production, young males are routinely castrated unless the farmer has the space to grow them to harvest weight separated from the females to prevent indiscriminate breeding. This is also done for safety reasons as young intact males tanked up on their own testosterone have a propensity for fighting among themselves. This can be as dangerous for the farmer as it is for the animals. In pigs, uncastrated males can have boar taint, meaning their meat has a strong off-flavor.
Some farmers prefer not to keep breeding animals, instead procuring “stockers” and “weanlings” which are young animals purchased from a breeder.
In over thirty years of farming I have yet to encounter someone raising broiler chickens who hatches their own peeps. Meat birds are purchased as day-old peeps from regional hatcheries who ship via the US postal service. This is also true for laying hens; however, many farmers are choosing to purchase started pullets which are young hens, 20 to 24 weeks old, who have just started laying eggs.
Speaking of chickens, there is a difference between a broiler and a layer chicken. Broilers are bred (not genetically engineered) to grow lots of muscle in a short amount of time. It takes half as long or less (6-9 weeks) to get a return from broilers than it does from laying hens. And no matter old a laying hen is, she’ll never have a meaty frame like a broiler.
Occasionally, farmers who have laying hens will bring stewing hens to market. As the name implies, they are not meant for meat unless it’s being shredded. Spent laying hens impart lots of flavor and are coveted for making rich stocks and broths. These are the hens who are no longer laying eggs…the slackers.
How do farmers know when their chickens are no longer laying eggs? They lose their feathers. This is called molting and occurs when a chicken is 14 to 16 months old, usually in the fall as days grow shorter. To maintain production throughout the winter months, replacement pullets are hatched or purchased in late summer. Some farmers use colored leg bands to denote age and other change breeds between breeds. Chickens can lay eggs for many years if allowed to molt and re-grow their feathers—a process that can take up to four months. This is fine for backyard flocks and farmers who don’t depend on an income, but for those of us at markets, unproductive birds are a drain on the system.
Goats do not grow up to be sheep or vice versa. Each belonging to a different genus, goats being caprine and sheep ovine, they generally do not interbreed. If they do, the offspring are stillborn or do not live long.
Baby sheep are called lambs and baby goats are kids. Momma sheep are ewes and goats are does. Male goats are bucks and sheep are rams unless you are in the UK and then they are tups. Both male sheep and goats when castrated are called wethers.
How does one tell the difference between sheep and goats? The tail is the best way as goat tails stand up and sheep tails lay down even when docked short. Spend any time around both species and you’ll notice differences that go beyond physical appearances. Put both together in a single group and they will segregate on their own.
Sheep are grazers, like cows, who predominantly prefer grass and eat with their heads down. Goats are browsers, like deer, and prefer to eat leafy shrubs from shoulder height and above with their heads up. The sugars in grasses will add more fat into the meat of grazing animals whereas browse is much higher in protein producing a leaner meat.
Don’t count on horns to tell the difference as many breeds are naturally polled, meaning born with the genetic trait to not grow horns. Many farmers choose to disbud animals with horns at a young age meaning they cauterize the horn buds, so they do not develop. This is especially true for dairy animals, including cows. Just so you know, both males and females can have horns. The removal of horns for most farmers is a safety factor. No matter how tame an animal, a flick of a sharp horn in a playful jest can be painful.
They are all meat
I’ve been asked if I raise my sheep for meat or wool, goats for meat or milk, cows for milk or meat, but the truth is that all livestock, no matter it’s niche purpose, can be eaten. Like the broiler/layer issue, dairy animals have been bred for generations to put their energy into milk production instead of bulking up on muscle for meat. That doesn’t mean they can’t be used for meat.
Do you know what happens to most of the old dairy cows in this country? They become fast-food burgers. What if customers who patronize local dairies and farmstead creameries also purchased their beef from the same farmer? The same goes for veal, often a four-letter word thanks to an animal rights campaign exposing industrial operations back in the 1980’s. Just like every other facet of farming that has created a sustainable and humane alternative to concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), dairy calves raised for veal on farmstead dairies and from small beef herds are often raised naturally, nursing from their mothers until harvest. As I tell customers, if you are drinking a farmer’s milk or eating their cheeses, yogurts and ice cream, you darn well better be eating their beef and veal if they offer it for sale.
Not just the farmers
We farmers are not the only ones to have our own vernacular when it comes to livestock. Customers, depending on their geography also have an assortment of names for meat cuts. When I first began having lambs butchered for market one of the cuts I brought was leg steaks. I could not save my life to sell a leg of lamb steak, but when I advertised them by their European name—gigot chops—within the first ten minutes of market they were all gone even though the package still called them leg steaks!
In the East, we have bottom sirloin, and in the West, they have their tri-tips. I’ve stared blankly at customers who ask me for oyster blade steaks until my butcher tells me they want a flat iron. There is no difference between a Kansas City strip and a New York strip steak, although I’ve had customers argue differently.
Customers and farmers have a lot of knowledge we can share with each other. This Saturday, when Pike Central Farm Market opens for the season you can try out your new vocabulary with your favorite meat farmers.