Monday, February 7, 2011

How to Cut-Up a Lamb (not for the squeamish)

We butchered four lambs over the past week and I thought some of you might like to see how we cut-up the meat into sections before packaging.  Warning: if you are a vegetarian or are against the butchering of animals for food, do yourself a favor and don't scroll down.  We home-process all of our meat and don't buy any meat from the store (if we can help it).  We love the satisfaction of knowing that our animals are fed an organic diet and given a very good life and a quick and humane death.   I'll try to take you through the whole process starting from after they are skinned.  My good friend, Teresa, does an excellent job of showing the skinning and gutting process at Tumble Weed Farms.  The only difference we have when we butcher is that we let the meat hang outdoors in below freezing weather for a couple of days before processing.  We learned from the Yu'pik Eskimos, while living among them, that the meat will naturally tenderize and rid of the gaminess if allowed to "breath".  It worked for moose, so we do the same with our goats and sheep.
These sheep were 11 months old - 3 rams and 1 ewe. Estimated weight between 150-175 lbs.

Tools of the trade: Bone saw, fillet knife, buck knife, cleaver, smaller knife, sharpener.

A meat grinder is also a great tool to have.  I used a hand-cranked one for many years before getting an attachment for my kitchenaid mixer.

A scale is handy, but not necessary.

 A vacuum sealer is also great to have, but not necessary.  We've used freezer bags and butcher paper in the past with good success.

The carcass is brought inside and allowed to thaw for a bit.  This is our last one - we've done 3 before this one.  Our backs are sore and we're tired, but it will be nice to have it all finished.

The first cut is made directly under the arm.  When you start cutting away the sinew, it will come apart very easily.

There is only a small joint holding it together that slices without effort.

Once you have both front legs off, you will cut them into pieces.

Once you have the arm off, find the joint where the lower leg bends and make a cut right above the joint.

Then hold onto the upper arm while "snapping" the lower leg.

The two pieces will come apart and a small cut will separate them.

Next, take the upper arm and find the shoulder joint.

Start cutting above the joint and down through the shoulder on both sides.

Once the cut is made all the way through the meat, the two pieces will separate at the joint.

Now you have 2 shoulder roasts.

Next, bend the back legs until the joints are exposed and cut away the tissue.

These are HUGE leg roasts.  We'll cut some of it for grinding and some will make boneless roasts.

Remove the lower leg like you did for the front legs (arms).  Find the joint where it bends and make a scoring cut all around.

It's a little more difficult than the upper legs.

Apply pressure to the lower part and it will reveal where to cut.

Next, make a cut directly below the rib cage and then perpundicular along the spine. 

Here it is viewed from the backside.

Cut the spine from the ribs directly below the ribcage. 

Once you make the first scoring cut, forcefully bend the spine backwards until you hear it snap.

Cut away flesh to disconnect.

Before removing the backstrap, be sure to cutaway the thick, fleshy part of the lower spine.  This makes wonderful cuts for fajitas.

Make a cut along the backbone, pulling away the flesh the length of the back.

Using a filet knife, gently cut the meat from the bone.

This is choice backstrap!

Next, filet to remove the tough outer layer.

Here is a view of the backstrap after being fileted.

This is a view of the upper backstrap above the ribcage.

Score a line along the spine...

pulling away the flesh.

Isn't that a beautiful piece of meat?

Cut from the spine and filet as earlier.

Next, use the saw to cut the ribs from the spine.

This can take alot of strength and it's awkward to hold.

The last bit can be cut with a knife.

The top of the ribs is very tough and mostly cartilage.  We cut it away and give it to the dogs.

Divide the ribs into 2 sections (it fits on the bbq easier this way).

All we have left is the neck.  We take all the meat from the neck to use for grinding and stew meat.  It's nicely marbled.

Taking the meat from the neck is the most time consuming of the whole ordeal.

There you have it!  All ready to be rinsed, ground, and packaged.

Stock, tallow, ground meat, roasts, steaks, chops, shanks and ribs ready for the freezer!

From start to finish, it takes us about 4 hours per lamb of this size (150-175 lb.).  Of course, the rendering of fat and the making of rich stock takes much longer. 

We aren't trained in how to do all of this.  If there are any professional butchers reading this, you may cringe at how we do things.  That's okay.  We've learned from lots of trial and lots of error over the years!  It works for us and maybe some of you will get a better idea of how to process your own meat.  


  1. Great Job! Since we won't be getting beef next this fall, we will be doing more sheep apparently;) So says Rob. I didn't care too much what they did to my pasture but I guess food on the table is more important.

  2. Great Job! I love the packaging!! I think I need to invest in a foodsaver! It would make things so much neater.
    Oh by the way I found you through Teresa at Tumbleweed Farm. We raise Goats, chickens and rabbits. Have some experience with sheep enough to know I wont have them by choice again! Lol
    Look forward to more blog post from you!

  3. Great pictures! Very helpful. It kinda makes me want to try. Since I live alone, I'll definitely try to get the help of one of my daughters. I've taken my lambs to a meat processor but have always wondered if I get my meat back or someone elses or even if I get all of my meat back. Thanks for the post.

  4. this is the BEST tutorial ever! Including anything published in book-form. Fantastic!

  5. Sorry it's taken me this looonnggg to reply back to these comments! I just figured out how to comment back to comments on my blog. It's taking me awhile to get the hang of blogging - but it sure is fun!
    Teresa- sheep are MUCH cheaper to raise than cattle. Plus their poop is smaller. It's alot easier to pick up marbles than pies. ;)
    Tonia- Thanks for visiting! I'm sorry you had a hard time with your sheep. Goats are great too, as I see you have a few. Do you also raise them for meat?
    Alla- I encourage you to try. The only thing I would caution you on is the weight. Depending on the age, a single lamb can weigh well over 100 lbs, even after the hide and innards are removed. Younger lambs/goats are much easier but then you have the "cute" factor. Around here, I put a ban on the butchering of the cute ones. They have to be big, fat and ugly! Ha!
    Dalyn- I love ya'!