imageI frequently have people ask me how to figure out live- versus hanging-weight, and how much they are paying per pound for their final cuts of meat. It can be very confusing figuring out the whole “weight thing”. I worry that consumers will feel misled and be frustrated if we aren’t transparent with them about how it works.

Case in point- here is an anonymous post on craigslist from a week or two ago, from an obviously disappointed lamb customer. I have no idea who this is, nor do I know the two farmers to whom he/she is referring (but I know from the descriptions neither one is me!).

A lady advertised her lamb weighs 110-120 lbs and the actual hanging weight was 75lbs according to the butcher’s written receipt, and I received about 40 lb of meat. The second time, the other farm processed the whole lamb for me. They bagged and wrapped the box and put in the trunk for me. It weights only 40 lbs from a 100 lb lamb, and visually inspected after I got home – all four leg meat were missing. Buyer beware, so I learned.

So, how does it really work? This person’s example is actually a great one!

Live to Hanging Weight

Sheep lose about half their weight going from live weight to hanging weight. Live weight is just what it sounds like- the weight of the animal “on the hoof.” Hanging weight is just after the animal has been butchered and it’s “hanging” on the rail. At that point, you subtract the hide, head, blood mass, the internal organs, and typically the leg below the front knee and hind hock joint.

The weight loss between live and hanging weight varies- partly by breed. But the biggest influencer is what the animal is “full of.” Pastured animals are full of more water and fiber, so will lose more weight during butchering than an animal that has been largely grain-fed. Animals which are transported for a day before slaughter will also yield higher percentages, because they’ve “emptied out” of most of their water and food. I believe a really excellent yield for a transported, feedlot lamb is around 58%. Pastured animals are lower, hovering around 50%.

From Hanging Weight to Cuts

More weight is lost once the frame is taken off the rail and fabricated into actual retail cuts. Removing fat and bone weight accounts for another 25% off of the hanging weight. Obviously, choosing bone-in versus boneless cuts will impact the final weight yield of cut & wrapped meat.

So what about craigslist person’s example of two lambs? He/she sounded disappointed with the second one, no? Let’s check the math:

Lamb #1 Lamb #2
Live 100-120 lbs 100 lbs
Hanging 75 lbs 4o lbs
Final 40 lbs ? (est. 30 lbs)


Fatty vs. Normal

What’s wrong with this picture? First, I’m going to guess that neither farmer knew how much his lamb weighed at live weight. One under-estimated, and one over-estimated, and neither is good.

If lamb #1 truly weighed 100-120 lbs live, it should have hung around 50-60 lbs. If the butcher said the animal hung at 75 lbs, that means that animal probably really weighed over 150 lbs live! So, for starters, that’s too heavy. The thing with lambs is, they can only mature so fast. If you feed them more than they require, they won’t simply accelerate to adult frame and muscling maturity in six months. Instead, they will just add extra fat. Meat packers typically penalize the seller if lambs are over 120 lbs, because they know this is just extra fat weight. Not worth paying for by-the-pound, nor extra work to cut off during butchering. Not to mention that the farmer has just wasted a lot of extra feed, pumping it into an animal that’s just laying down fat.

So, farmer #1 really should be putting the brakes on his lamb growth before they get this big and fatty, both for his own profitability as well as customer satisfaction. It’s possible that the farmer doesn’t have a good way to weigh his lambs to know this, and was just guessing the lamb weighed between 100-120 lbs. Or, perhaps he does know this, had an “oops, that one got too big before I got around to marketing him” scenario, and didn’t necessarily volunteer that info to the buyer.

The second thing about lamb #1? The final yield is low. If we are expecting 75% yield from a 75 lb hanging weight lamb, that should be about 56 lbs of meat. But the buyer only got 40. It’s possible if all the cuts were deboned, that could explain some of that loss. But more likely- you guessed it- it was a bunch of fat cut off that lamb. It’s an excellent illustration of why you don’t want to keep lambs around past their peak growth stage. And why buyers should be careful about paying by the pound for live or hanging weight if they aren’t confident that the farmer isn’t over-fattening.

Lamb #2 looks more typical to me for local lamb. I wasn’t clear on whether the buyer meant that the lamb hung at 40 lbs or the final cuts were at 40 lbs. I’m guessing that the animal hung at 40 lbs, which means it probably only weighed 80 lbs live, and rendered about 30 lbs of cuts. Grass-fed lambs in the 80 lb range are common here, especially with hair sheep. It can sometimes take 8-12 months to get them up to 100 lbs, unless grain or alfalfa is used to speed their gains. Again, perhaps the farmer didn’t have a good way to verify live weight, and was just optimistically guessing. Or, maybe that animal actually hung at 50 lbs and rendered 40 lbs of meat, which would be right on target.

Cutting Decisions

The consumer’s complaint that the “leg meat was missing” is a little bit of a mystery, an indeed maybe he/she got swindled. But, given that the farmer handled the butchering on behalf of the buyer, it’s more likely that the lamb didn’t get cut the way the buyer was expecting.

Every butcher has their own style of cutting, and their own opinion about the best cuts. So, if you don’t specify, you get the default (whatever that is). We have learned this the hard way, and probably everyone does. We personally hate lamb steaks in our household- we find they are just hard to cut up and eat! They have too many layers of fat and fell, leaving you wanting to cut the things with an X-Acto knife to get the meat out. Winking smile IMO, the only hope for steaks is to stew them for a long time, until the fat and fell render out. But if you don’t say anything, butchers will get into “cow mode” and often cut up half the animal into steaks! They may also put a lot of the shoulder meat and the shanks into grind or stew meat. And, that, I think, could leave a customer who was envisioning multiple nice roasts and four shanks wondering, “what happened to the legs??”

LambOnTheGrillI think it’s best if both parties work with a patient butcher, who is able to walk the customer through the choices of cuts, and steer them to the easiest-to-prepare things if they are inexperienced in choosing cuts. Not all butchers in our area have strong knowledge about cutting lamb (our butcher doesn’t even eat lamb!), so they may need guidance from us on what to recommend. I also think that when the customer picks up their meat from the butcher, they will feel more trusting that they got “their” animal, and the whole animal. The butcher is like an escrow service between me and the buyer. Smile Versus, if I take the meat home and bag it out of my own freezer for the customer, it could leave the customer wondering if I held back a few things for myself. (Not to mention it pushes the envelope of the law, if it’s not USDA inspected meat).

Mo’ Better

I struggle a little bit, especially with ethnic market buyers, against the concept that more is always better. Many people just want to get to the bottom line: “how much per pound am I paying for the final cuts, and who is the cheapest?” This is where I think buyers can really go astray and be disappointed. There is such a wide variety of breeds, and often the big, fast-growing breeds also render the toughest meat. And, over-fattened lambs can really skew the hanging weight, yet yield no more meat than their leaner counterparts. 

The traditional American commodity meat market breeds  have always been rewarded by scale weight, not palatability (and we wonder why lamb is on an eighty-year decline in this country?). Some of the less traditional breeds which grow a little slower and stay lighter in frame may be the best tasting; but of course you pay more per pound. If you’re going to throw everything in the stew pot with curry and skim the fat pools off the top, it may not matter. But for bare BBQ cooking, tenderness and flavor are paramount. So, I try to posit to consumers that my more expensive, but smaller, grass-fed lambs likely taste better than the whopper down the road that’s been eating several lbs of soy per day. Sometimes I convince them, sometimes not! Smile

All in all, it’s unfortunate that this craigslist buyer ended up feeling ripped off- I hope he/she truly wasn’t. But as you can see, there are many factors that go into figuring out how much you should pay for a lamb on-the-hoof; and more to consider than just live weight, hanging weight, or final pounds of cuts.