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Sheep & Goats
Illinois Livestock Trail
Opportunities for Illinois Producers in the Ethnic/Religious Sheep Meat Market
by A. Richard Cobb

Continuing changes in the makeup of the United States population is creating a fundamental change in the marketing of our lamb crop. The Ethnic and Commodity slaughter lamb markets in this country require animals that are very different. With ethnic preference of 80 pounds and lighter and the present preferred commodity live weight of 140 pounds and heavier the two industries are producing very different types of lambs. This has created an opportunity for the development of a strong Ethnic Market for producers in Illinois and many areas of the country.

There is not just one ethnic market in the United States, rather there are many. It is estimated the ethnic population spends more than $75 billion in annual food sales. One dollar out of seven is spent by someone from the ethnic population.

What is Ethnic?

Ethnic is by definition:

  1. Of or relating to a sizable group of people sharing a common and distinctive racial, national, religious, linguistic or cultural heritage.
  2. Being a member of a particular ethnic group especially belonging to a national group by heritage or culture but residing outside its national boundaries.
  3. Relating to a people not Christian or Jewish: heathen

Ethnic populations of lamb consumers in the U.S. of Pakistani, Hispanic, Indian, Bosnian, Mediterranean, Chinese and Middle Eastern back grounds are expanding in this country.


While we have often grouped most ethnic consumers as "Muslims", this is really a term given to people who follow the teachings of Islam. The American Muslim population is primarily a combination of Asians and Middle Easterners with many African American converts to Islam.

Most lamb is consumed on the east and west coasts and in the major metropolitan areas; However, ethnic markets can be developed anywhere ethnic populations exist thus creating a year round market. For the above mentioned ethnic groups the choice of meat for most family events and social gatherings is lamb or goat, thus creating a year round market for the animals. However the demand for both increases prior to various religious observances. The type of lamb (age, weight, sex, condition) and manner in which it is to be harvested (Halal, Kosher) depends upon the group and the holiday. The following chart lists some of the religious observances for the next 5 years in which lamb is commonly consumed. This is taken from the Maryland Small Ruminants site.

Ethnic Holiday Calendar 2005-2010Holiday







Eid ul-Adha
Festival of Sacrifice

January 21

January 10

December 20

December 8

November 28

November 17

Islamic New Year

February 10

January 31

January 20

January 10


December 8

Mawlid al-Nabi
Prophet's Birthday

April 21

April 11

March 31

March 20

March 9

February 26

Start of Ramadan
Month of Fasting

October 5

September 24

September 13

September 2

August 22

August 11

Eid ul-Fitr
Festival of Fast Breaking

November 4

October 24

October 13

October 2

September 21

September 10


April 24-May 1

April 13-21

April 3-10

April 20-27

April 9-16

March 30-April 6

Rosh Hashanah

October 4

September 23

September 13

September 30

September 19

September 9


Dec 26-Jan 2

December 16-23

December 5-12

December 22-29

December 12-19

December 2-9

Western Roman Easter

March 27

April 16

April 8

March 23

April 12

April 4

Eastern Orthodox Easter

May 1

April 23

April 8

April 27

April 19

April 4


December 25

Explanation of Holidays

Muslim Holidays
Ramadan is the ninth month of the year in the Islamic calendar. A fast, held from sunrise to sunset, is carried out during this period.
Eid-al-Fitr is a festival that ends the fast of Ramadan. In Arabic "Eid" means "festival" or "festivity."
Eid-al-Adha is second in the series of Eid festivals that Muslims celebrate. Eid ul-Adha is celebrated as a commemoration of Prophet Ibrahim's (Abraham) willingness to sacrifice his son Ismail for Allah (God).
Muharram is the first month fo the Muslim year It's first day is celebrated as New year's Day.
Mawlid al-Nabi is a celebration of the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad, founder of Islam.

While the two Eid Festivals are always on the same day of the Islamic calendar, the date on the Western calendar (the Gregorian calendar) varies from year to year due to differences between the two calendars, since the Islamic calendar is a lunar calendar and the Gregorian calendar is a solar calendar. Furthermore, the method used to determine when each Islamic month begins varies from country to country. All future dates listed are only estimates.

Jewish Holidays
is a holiday beginning on the 14th of Nisan (first month of the religious calendar, corresponding to March–April) and traditionally continuing for eight days, commemorating the exodus of the Hebrews from Egypt. Also called Pesach.
Rosh Hashanah is the Jewish New Year. It is marked by solemnity as well as festivity.
Chanukkah is the Jewish festival of rededication, also known as the festival of lights. It is an eight day festival beginning on the 25th day of the Jewish month of Kislev.

Jewish holidays are celebrated on the same day of the Jewish calendar every year, but the Jewish year is not the same length as a solar year on the Gregorian calendar used by most of the western world, so the date shifts on the Gregorian calendar.

Christian Holidays
Easter is a Christian feast commemorating the Resurrection of Jesus after his crucifixion. The Orthodox Eastern Church calculates Easter somewhat differently, so that the Orthodox Easter usually comes several weeks after that of the West.

Eastern Orthodox Christians come from a variety of ethnic backgrounds: Greek, Russian, Egyptian, Romanian, Serbian, Ukrainian, Armenian, Bulgarian, Georgian, Albanian, Ethiopian, Syrian, and American.

Recommended Links
Interfaith Calendar
What is Your Religion . . . If Any?

Muslim holidays occur 10 to 11 days earlier each year and cannot be predicted with exact certainty because they are based on a lunar calendar and the sighting of the moon. Eastern (Greek) and Western (Roman) Easter use different calendars (Julian vs Gregorian) and rarely occur on the same date. In addition to the holidays listed, the demand for lamb and goat may increase prior to other ethnic observances. For instance, it is common for Muslims to consume sheep (or goat) meat to celebrate a new baby (Aqeeqah).

As you can see from the above chart, the holiday dates, particually Muslim, are going to change a great deal in the five year time span (2006 on). This will make it more difficult to ewes bred to produce lambs that will be the right size as the holiday dates move back to early December and November.

Sheep! Magazine recommends the following formula to produce lambs for a specific holiday. Figure the ewe needs to be bred approximately 225 days prior to the holiday to have the lamb ready. This figures 15 days for rams to be in the flock + 150 days gestation + 50 days growth + 10 days pick-up period. Producers should be prepared to sell, process or ship lambs one to two weeks before the actual holiday.

Sheep! Also suggests that lambs for ethnic markets should not be castrated, but should be well muscled, small framed and not have ear tags. Animals for Halal meat used by Muslim consumers should not have been given feed that contains animal derivatives. The lamb should be vigorous and in good health when slaughtered. Stunning prior to slaughter is usually not acceptable, and a Muslim should cut the jugular vein, the carotid artery, and the windpipe in a single action. All flowing blood should be immediately drained from the carcass.

The following is taken from "Producing and Selling Sheep for the Ethnic/Religious Meat Markets" by Susan Schoenian, Sheep and Goat Specialist, University of Maryland

Tapping Ethnic/Religious Markets

There are many ways that sheep producers can tap the ethnic/religious markets for lamb. Producers may direct market their lambs to ethnic customers, take their lambs to local or regional livestock auctions prior to holidays, sell to middlemen who supply the ethnic/religious trade(s), and/or work cooperatively with other producers to market live animals or carcasses to ethnic markets. Producers should choose a target market and produce and market lambs in a manner that is consistent with the religion, beliefs, and customs of the customers. It may require changes in breeding and management to meet the needs of the ethnic market. The following tables contrast the different methods of marketing sheep and lambs, with the ethnic consumer in mind.

The easiest way to sell lambs and sheep is to take them to a local or regional livestock auction. Producers can take advantage of the ethnic/religious demand for lamb when they sell to livestock auction markets, if they produce the type of lamb(s) that the ethnic buyers want and sell their lambs prior to the religious observances in which lamb is consumed. Many auction barns offer "special sales" of lambs and kids prior to Easter, Christmas, and the major Muslim holidays.

To maximize returns from public livestock auctions, a producer should develop a working relationship with the market manager. To start with, let him know when you are bringing a load of lambs to market. Ask the market manager what kind of lambs (or sheep) his buyers prefer and when the best time to sell is. You can also use public livestock auctions to make contact with lamb buyers and to negotiate direct sales to packers and other middlemen.

Producers should compare livestock auction markets and choose the markets that will return the most profit. Auction prices are listed in newspapers, farm periodicals, and on the Internet. When comparing the prices from livestock markets, it is important to compare "net" proceeds, rather than "gross" reported prices. The auction that brings the highest prices may not result in the most profit if the higher prices are offset by higher transportation costs, shrink, sales commissions, etc. The difference in prices between auction markets should reflect regional differences in transportation costs. Prices will be higher the closer the market is to the point of slaughter.

Because you are eliminating all of the middlemen, the best price is usually obtained when lambs are sold directly from the farm to the consumer. Under this scenario, the buyer may take the live lamb with him, have the lamb slaughtered at a custom processing plant, or process the lamb on the farm.

On-Farm Slaughter

It is illegal to slaughter a lamb on the farm for the purpose of sale. Lamb meat may only be sold if the lamb has been processed in a USDA inspected slaughter plant (some states have state meat inspection which allows the sale of meat within the state). When selling lambs for slaughter, you need to sell a LIVE lamb and let the buyer process the lamb or facilitate the slaughter of the lamb at a custom or USDA slaughterhouse. You must not help the buyer process the lamb; however, you have an obligation to ensure that the lamb is handled and killed in a humane manner (lambs should not be hung until they are insensible) and that offal is disposed of in an environmentally sound manner (e.g. composting). Cornell University has published a poster depicting humane on-farm slaughter. Producers should familiarize themselves with local, state, and federal laws before allowing on-farm slaughter of lambs.

Before you sell lambs directly from your farm, you have to develop a client base. Some of the ways you can develop an ethnic client base are

  • Word of mouth
  • Place a classified ad in a large metropolitan newspaper
  • Post flyers at religious and social centers prior to a major holiday
  • Send articles to magazines, newsletters, TV, and radio stations that represent specific ethnic groups
  • Advertise on college campuses that have large foreign populations
  • Leave your business card or brochure at a custom or USDA slaughterhouse
  • Hand out free samples of lamb at a farmer's market

Many producers do not want to sell lambs directly from their farm. Nor do they like the uncertainty of taking lambs to the auction. Selling to "middlemen" may be the best option, if you are certain you are getting a fair price. There are various middlemen that purchase sheep and lambs: Dealers (or traders) buy and sell lambs to make a profit on price and weight differences. Brokers or order buyers buy lambs (for a fee) for feeders, live markets, and slaughter houses. Packers buy live lambs, process them, and sell meat wholesale or retail. Retail markets sell to the end consumer.

To find middlemen:

  • Ask buyers, dealers, and producers at local and regional auction markets.
  • Contact your local packers and stockyards office to obtain a list of processors.
  • Contact USDA or your state department of agriculture for a list of USDA-inspected and custom slaughter houses.
  • Visit restaurants that serve lamb.
  • Visit stores that sell lamb.
  • Look at meat marketing listings in the Yellow Pages.
  • Check directory listings on sheepgoatmarketing.org

When selling lambs to middlemen, there are many things to consider. For example, will you sell a live lamb or a lamb carcass? Will the buyer pick up the lambs or will you deliver them? Who will pay for the cost of transportation, including shrink. Sometimes a pencil shrink will need to be negotiated. You will need to agree upon a method of payment. There is considerably more financial risk when selling to an individual buyer as compared to selling lambs at a bonded livestock auction or to a bonded livestock dealer. You need to protect yourself from payment forfeitures and bad checks. Bank transfers prior to the sale of lambs are recommended. Good records should be kept on financial transactions.

Many producers wish to sell lambs directly to the packer because it streamlines the marketing chain and should result in higher prices (when averaged over the long run). When selling lambs directly to a packer, you need to negotiate a deal (or contract) that is beneficial for both parties. The packer wants a guaranteed supply at a consistent price, whereas the producer is looking for price stability and the opportunity to forward price his product. While small producers may be able to sell a few lambs to custom slaughter houses or small butcher shops, most processors will want a regular supply of lambs and this may require several producers to work together or form a marketing pool or cooperative.

Producers can have more clout in the market place if they organize marketing cooperatives or informal marketing groups. This is because unless a producer is very large, it usually takes many producers to supply a market on a regular basis. Marketing groups can be as simple as lamb pools and sharing transportation costs to legally organized cooperatives that market their own branded meat products. Numerous public grants are available to help producer groups organize cooperatives and market value-added products.

For more information, the premier site on this topic in the country is the Cornell site. It is located at: http://sheepgoatmarketing.info/index.cfm This is a rather large site, explore all the options, there is a great deal of information.

One location on the site that describes the type of lamb or goat desired at each ethnic holiday is at:http://sheepgoatmarketing.info/PageLoad.cfm?page=education/ethnicholidays.htm

What breeds can be used to produce for the Ethnic market?

We are seeing a fundamental change in the slaughter lamb marketing system in this country. This has been brought about by the increasing number of ethnic consumers and their preference for lambs for much lighter weight than the commodity market. This has created an opportunity for smaller size breeding sheep to again become popular. However, because the emphasis in the US sheep flock for the past 40 years has been on mature size, most of the more popular breeds, Suffolk, Hampshire, Dorset, Columbia etc have become too large to efficiently produce lambs that are fat between 40 to 90 pounds. This means there is an opportunity for smaller framed breeds, like the Il de France or members of the above mentioned breeds that did not join the rush to "Bigger is Better" to become the parent stock of the expanding ethnic market.

In addition, breeds new to, or recently developed in America, also seem able to produce the desired type of lamb for the ethnic market. These include Hair breeds such as the St Croix, and Black Bellied Barbados as well as Composite breeds like the Dorper, Katahdin and the Royal White. This group of breeds are considered "Hair breeds" in this country because they either have no or very little wool or shed their wool, (some more completely than others). While the jury is still out on weather or not the Hair and Composite breeds can service this industry, right now things are looking good for them to make more of a foothold in this country. From looking at the dates of the holidays in the future, one important factor is going to be a breed, or cross, that can successfully breed over much of the year.

For information as to the price of lightweight lambs check out the following sites.

Kalona, Iowa. http://www.agriculture.state.ia.us/kalonash.html for weekly reports.

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