Mmmmm – tasty and succulent sheep meat is one of the best parts of homesteading. That’s for sure. But did you know there are countless sheep breeds, yet only a handful of famous meat sheep breeds? It’s true.
More homesteaders today are beginning to raise sheep, and it’s a worthwhile and money-saving endeavor. However, it can be tough, especially for newer homesteaders, to know which breeds of sheep are best suited for raising meat.
And that’s what we’re here to explore today – the 7 top meat sheep breeds, including Cheviot, Dorper, Dorset, Icelandic, Katahdin, Suffolk, and Texel.
But before we jump into that, let’s quickly review some basic sheep terms, some informative and fun facts about sheep, and the nutritional profile of this type of red meat that’s loved worldwide.
Let’s not waste another second. It’s meat sheep time!
- Basic Sheep Husbandry Terminology
- Fast and Fun Facts About Sheep
- Sheep Meat Nutritional Profile
- The 7 Best Meat Sheep Breeds for Homesteaders
- How to Maintain Consistent Sheep Meat Quality
Basic Sheep Husbandry Terminology
It’s good to know some of the terms commonly used when speaking about sheep, including the word sheep, which can be singular or plural, referring to the entire species or any member of it.
Here are some others, and please note that there are some regional differences and overlaps.
- Ewe: Any female sheep that can produce offspring.
- Gimmer (aka theave): A young female sheep that has not yet had a lamb.
- Hogget (aka hog, hogg): an adolescent sheep, unshorn, either male or female, typically between 9 – 18 months of age, until it cuts at least two teeth. Alternate names include teg and shearling.
- Lamb: A sheep less than a year of age.
- Mutton: The meat of older wethers or ewes.
- Ram: A male sheep that has not gotten castrated.
- Shornie: A sheep that was just sheared (shorn).
- Slink: A newborn or otherwise very young lamb.
- Springer: A pregnant ewe ready to give birth.
- Stag: A male sheep that gets castrated when it reaches six months old.
- Store: A thin-bodied meat sheep bought for fattening and reselling.
- Weaner: A young sheep that has gotten weaned from its Mom.
- Wether: A castrated male sheep or goat.
Alright, now we all know!
And as a bonus, I present the definition of Lamb Fries:
They’re sheep testicles when used in recipes.
I can’t say. I’ve never tried eating lamb fries – and I’ll probably keep it this way!
Okay, now that we know some of the most common sheep husbandry terms, let’s quickly review some educational and entertaining sheep facts. Trust me, it’ll be fun.
Here we go!
Fast and Fun Facts About Sheep
Sheep belong to the same animal family as muskoxen, goats, cattle, and antelopes. They are all even-toed ungulates, meaning they have 2-toed split (cloven) hooves.
Now, a few more exciting sheep facts!
- Sheep are one of the first types of animals to be domesticated and continue to get raised worldwide. The first recorded sheep farming efforts existed in Central Asia and the Middle East.
- Like cattle, sheep are ruminants, meaning they have multi-chambered stomachs. Plus – almost all sheep breeds develop curled horns from keratin, an insoluble, protein-based substance, the same stuff that makes up our human fingernails.
- Baby lambs can walk right away within a few minutes of birth. However, they continue to need their mothers for about half a year. After they are weaned, around four to six months, they typically become sexually mature within about another half of a year. However, depending on the species, some take up to five years to become sexually mature.
- There are estimated to be hundreds of breeds of the biological genus of domestic sheep, Ovis aries. The best estimate we found says there are likely more than 900 sheep breeds worldwide.
- Sheep are social creatures. But typically only like hanging out with their gender, not a more general sheep population. Male sheep flock together in bachelor herds. And the female groups are called nursery herds.
See? Fast, informative, and entertaining – just like I promised!
Now, before we look at the top meat sheep breeds, let’s quickly review the nutritional profile of this delicious, exotic red meat.
Sheep Meat Nutritional Profile
Healthline asserts that one 3.5-ounce serving of sheep meat contains roughly:
- 26 grams of protein
- 17 grams of fat
- 260 calories
- 60% water
Sheep meat does not contain carbohydrates, sugar, or fiber. However, it contains vitamin B3 (niacin), Vitamin B12 (cobalamin), iron, phosphorus, selenium, and zinc.
Nutritious and delightful!
We made it. The time has arrived.
And now, 7 of the Top Meat Sheep Breeds.
Get your favorite sheep recipes ready.
The 7 Best Meat Sheep Breeds for Homesteaders
While any breed of sheep serves as meat, some varieties produce meat that tastes better with superior texture. Worldwide, Suffolk sheep are probably the most popular breed for meat farming. However, hair breeds like the Dorper and Katahdin are also surprisingly popular.
In general, the best meat sheep breeds to farm on your homestead are the ones that don’t require a lot of human care, reach maturity rapidly, have strong genetics and are resistant to disease, and grow large and develop high-quality meat that tastes good. It seems pretty obvious. Right?
The seven sheep breeds we’ll cover here today are:
Naturally, which is the best of all sheep breeds for meat farming is very subjective. Some factors that will affect the final flavor of sheep meat include location, diet, level of exercise, and age at the time of butchering.
And, of course, each person has different taste receptors, meaning everyone will have their preferences about which meat sheep breed is best.
Alright – time for what we’re all here for some of the best sheep breeds for tasty meat!
1. Cheviot Sheep
|Description:||Stylish breed that’s also very active and alert.|
|Uses:||Meat and wool.|
|Ram Weight:||165 to 200 pounds.|
|Ewe Weight:||125 to 160 pounds.|
|Society:||American Cheviot Sheep Society|
Hailing from the northern parts of England, Cheviot sheep are a hardy breed and no strangers to cold, wet, and otherwise harsh weather conditions. That makes them a popular choice for homesteaders in cold climates. They’re also naturally resistant to various parasites that affect many other breeds.
Over time, these resilient sheep evolved into strong and hardy animals requiring little human intervention or supplemental feed. They’re excellent foragers and even do very well in poor-quality pastures. And their stocky, short bodies enable them to maneuver in rocky, rough terrain.
Cheviot sheep meat is mild in flavor, with an enjoyable yet slightly musky taste due to its lanolin content. Cheviot ewes grow to between 120 – 160 pounds, while rams top out at about 200 pounds.
2. Dorper Sheep
|Description:||A hornless and fertile breed with either black or white heads.|
|Ram Weight:||190 to 250 pounds.|
|Ewe Weight:||125 to 160 pounds.|
|Society:||American Dorper Sheep Breeder’s Society|
Dorper sheep originated in South Africa. And like the Cheviot, they can handle tremendously unpleasant climatic conditions. Hair sheep, like the Dorper and Katahdin, don’t produce lanolin, the foul-smelling, waxy substance found on sheep wool in other wool breeds. In high-enough concentrations, lanolin can affect the flavor of the meat, making it more muttony – and less lamby.
Aside from its mild flavor, Dorper sheep meat is tender. Because of the lack of lanolin in Dorper meat, it’s favored worldwide as lamb and mutton. Dorper lambs also grow fast, reaching about 80 pounds within three to four months. Also, their meat-to-bone ratio is tremendously good, meaning you’ll enjoy minimal wastage when farming Dorper sheep.
3. Dorset Sheep
|Description:||Large sheep with black wool-covered legs.|
|Uses:||Primarily meat – but also wool and milk.|
|Ram Weight:||230 to 270 pounds.|
|Ewe Weight:||160 to 200 pounds.|
|Society:||Dorset Horn and Poll Dorset Sheep Breeder’s Association|
Dorset sheep are famous worldwide as superior meat producers. They’re easily one of the most common meat sheep breeds in the USA. They’re also excellent for sheep milk and wool production, making this dual-purpose breed a good choice for homesteaders new to sheep farming and needing to gain a more inclusive husbandry experience.
Having originated in 19th-century England, Dorsets are popular because they mature quickly. And they don’t mind breeding year-round. Plus, they grow lean and muscular, meaning their meat is protein-rich. Yet, it has enough fat content to create a succulent, tender texture. It’s just slightly muttony and is considered by many to be the best all-around sheep meat for taste and quality combined.
Dorset ewes commonly produce up to three lambs yearly, compared to the average among all domestic breeds of just 1.3 annually. Dorsets are also slightly heftier than Dorpers, with rams reaching 275 pounds or more and ewes commonly attaining 200 pounds.
Here's an excellent resource for any homesteader processing homemade meat. It's The Home Butcher by James O. Fraioli. The book teaches handy techniques for butchering beef, sheep, lamb, goat, fowl, poultry, rabbit, venison, and other game at home. It also contains 75 savory recipes ideal for any farmer or rancher aspiring to cook succulent, delicious, homemade food.
4. Icelandic Sheep
|Description:||Medium-sized, individualistic sheep, usually horned – but not always.|
|Uses:||Meat and sometimes wool.|
|Ram Weight:||Around 210 pounds.|
|Ewe Weight:||Around 150 pounds.|
|Society:||Icelandic Sheep Breeders of North America|
Being from Iceland means that cold temperatures and unpleasant environments are no big deal. One of the most popular sheep breeds, Icelandic sheep are resilient animals capable of finding the nutrition they require in even the sparsest terrain scenarios.
Plus, after centuries of living in the heart of the Icelandic climate, these hardy sheep typically reach sexual maturity far earlier than most other breeds, within seven months for the ewes. Icelandic sheep are fast growers, making them a popular choice for homesteaders who want to farm sheep for meat. At maturity, ewes typically weigh about 150 pounds, with rams averaging nearly 210.
Icelandic sheep meat is flavorful, although a bit on the lean side. However, its relatively low-fat content doesn’t stop it from having a delicious flavor and tender texture – at least when properly prepared. When Icelandic sheep get slaughtered between four and five months of age, the meat is said to be one of the most uniquely delicate and delicious of any breed.
5. Katahdin Sheep
|Description:||Excellent meat animals with good mothering instincts.|
|Uses:||Meat and utility.|
|Ram Weight:||Up to 250 pounds.|
|Ewe Weight:||Around 135 pounds.|
|Society:||Katahdin Hair Sheep International|
Like Dorper sheep, Katahdin sheep do not produce lanolin. They are hair sheep. No lanolin means milder, more delicate, and tender meat. Hair breeds like the Katahdin and Dorper also tolerate excessive heat better than wool sheep breeds.
Topping out at about 250 pounds for rams, Katahdin sheep are a bit on the small side, at least compared to Suffolks. They’re also low-maintenance and flexible. Katahdins mature quickly, typically ready to take to the market or butcher within three months, even if they live on a pasture without much supervision.
Plus, Katahdin sheep have a superior natural immunity to parasitic infections. Immunity matters because it minimizes the need for veterinary care. Katahdin lamb and mutton are mild, not gamey. And even though it’s not high in fat content, the lean meat is tender and succulent when cooked with care.
6. Suffolk Sheep
|Description:||Tremendously powerful and heavy sheep breed.|
|Uses:||Mostly meat, but some wool and dairy.|
|Ram Weight:||Up to 350 pounds.|
|Ewe Weight:||190 to 250 pounds.|
|Society:||United Suffolk Sheep Association|
Suffolk sheep grow fast and big, with some rams reaching over 300 pounds! Their rapid growth rate means that most Suffolk lambs are market-ready by their 12-week birthdays, meaning less time, money, and care from you.
Suffolks also demonstrate an excellent feed conversion ratio, meaning you’ll pay less to keep them growing. However, they require rich pasture to provide the nutrients they need to develop. (They’re big. And hungry!)
Various sources assert that Suffolk sheep are the world’s first choice for meat farming. This large breed is one of the oldest. They originated in Southern England back in the early 1800s. Today, Suffolks thrive worldwide and continue to grow in popularity. They’re an excellent choice of meat sheep.
7. Texel Sheep
|Description:||Large, polled sheep breed with muscular frames.|
|Uses:||Excellent meat and wool.|
|Ram Weight:||Up to 250 pounds.|
|Ewe Weight:||Around 175 pounds.|
|Society:||British Texel Sheep Society|
Sturdy-built Texel sheep are strong and develop heavy, fast-growing muscles. Texels are a top meat breed choice globally – including in Australia, New Zealand, and various European countries.
Texels are known for their appreciable size and high-quality meat. They dress out beautifully and offer a very high meat-to-bone ratio.
The decreased wastage is complemented nicely by the tender, well-textured meat that leaves no fatty residue in your mouth. It’s not uncommon for lambs to reach 100 pounds by 24 weeks, meaning that you can choose to have them processed in as little as six months.
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- How Many Sheep Per Acre Can You Raise – USA Guide
How to Maintain Consistent Sheep Meat Quality
If you’re a homesteader or anyone else thinking about beginning to raise lamb or sheep for meat, congratulations! Sheep husbandry can increase environmental sustainability, lower bills from the food store, and provide a delicious red meat addition to your healthy diet.
Regardless of the specific meat sheep breed you select to farm, some factors will determine the quality and taste of the meat they produce.
First, meat from castrated males tastes distinctly different than meat from their uncastrated counterparts. Also, there is a striking difference in taste between a young lamb and an old ewe.
That’s why many homesteaders choose to have their lambs slaughtered and butchered between five and eight months of age. This age range helps to avoid the gamey flavor and toughness associated with the meat of older sheep.
The taste and quality of the meat that sheep produce depend on their diet, how much it exercises, the availability of clean water, and genetics. (The same is true for any animal!)
That’s why many experienced sheep farmers determine the age that they will butcher their lambs and stick to that rule. Doing so over time helps to develop a consistent taste and texture in your meat.
Well, we did it! We learned about seven top meat sheep breeds known for their delicious flavor and enticing texture.
Thanks so much for reading along today, and I hope you found the information valuable. I wish you the best of luck in your homesteading and sheep-husbandry efforts.
Man, hundreds of sheep breeds, plus however many wild breeds. That’s a Whole Lotta SHEEP!
Best Sheep Meat Breeds – Resources, Guides, and Works Cited