As summer heats up, Jacqueline Smith, founder of Central Grazing Company, continues to move her sheep daily with the help of two farmhands and several working farm dogs. The daily task list on the farm is fairly predictable: Check the sheep, move their fencing, set up water, and get ready to repeat the process again within 24 grazing hours.
What has become far less predictable — and further exacerbated by the COVID pandemic — is the way the food system is operating. This instability is felt most intimately by small- and mid-sized farms and ranches, including Central Grazing Company. Several intersecting issues that drive the volatility — particularly pastured lamb producers — include limited land access (especially for beginning farmers and ranchers), reduced flock numbers and size around the globe, and a lack of lamb production in the U.S. The greatest challenge is the lack of processing facilities to accommodate smaller operations. Processing facilities are more than just a building. They include the physical space, skilled butchers, and inspectors to ensure the quality and cleanliness of the facility and the product before it reaches the market.
“Central Grazing Company alone has lost access to 62% of the required processing capacity since 2020, and the shortage is ongoing,” says Smith. This processing shortage, while accelerated and exposed by the COVID pandemic, did not start in 2020.
We talked with Jacqueline to learn more about what is happening in the Midwest, our food system, and what Central Grazing Company is working on locally to address these challenges.
Can you contextualize what has been happening in our regional food systems to lead us to this current processing shortage and bottleneck? How is it impacting food producers?
Four companies — Cargill, Tyson Foods, JBS SA, and National Beef Packing Company — own 80% of our protein food supply here in the U.S.; two are foreign-owned. Over time, larger, consolidated meat companies have taken over contracts at smaller processing facilities, pushing out smaller, more time-consuming contracts. Working with larger companies and contracts is an excellent opportunity for smaller processing facilities to earn more income, as these contracts provide the facilities with a set processing schedule, which is easier to manage and comes with a reliable income stream. However, it disrupts everyone who doesn't meet that same capacity.
What we're experiencing primarily affects small, rural families in food deserts who are now losing access to self-production and food sovereignty. Policy changes have allowed the consolidation of what we believe are agricultural community assets — the assets and people needed to produce, process, and distribute food. There isn't a real opportunity for people to come into farming or agriculture because it is genuinely a "dying" industry. Agriculture is globalized, consolidated, and vulnerable, and we believe it must be decentralized to regain a resilient food system.
Investing in more regional supply chains can create a more resilient food system by creating a pipeline for farmers to come into and sell outside of the commodity market, work for more than poverty wages, and have more pricing power. We require farmers to produce food, but our current system doesn't value their work above poverty wages.
How was processing changed during COVID? What struggles does it continue to face?
The U.S. meat industry was one of the most impacted by Covid outbreaks. The commercial facilities relied on unfair, close working conditions, which led to Covid outbreaks and worker shortages. The lack of national meat-processing infrastructure as a result of Covid caused small, locally owned plants to shoulder additional workloads to meet national demand. As their workload increased, local processors prioritized the high demand and easy-to-process commercial accounts over the more time-consuming local ones. This exacerbated the trend toward larger contracts that had already begun in preceding years.
We were booked solid for the entire year of 2020, and we lost almost half of our available dates and processors. Central Grazing Company, for example, has lost 62% of our processing capacity, and we can't get it back. Small processing facilities near us in Douglas County have 12 to 18 month waitlists for local producers, and some have stopped processing lamb, goat, and venison.
Often, smaller processing facilities are overwhelmed and don’t have enough resources to take the demand. Farmers are making harsh no-win decisions, such as feeding animals longer, which comes at a higher cost to the farmer and makes the animals put on more fat, resulting in the loss of quality and value.
What is the processing reality for small-scale pastured lamb producers, based on your experience, in this area of the Midwest and, really, globally?
Due to the increased demand and global supply chain shortages, USDA reports indicate that the price of lamb has risen by 228%, and there is no indication that it will decrease anytime soon. The USDA also is estimating that 400 million pounds of lamb will be consumed by Americans, but only 153 million pounds of that will come from the U.S.
Most of the world's lamb is produced in New Zealand and Australia. Due to lasting droughts and fires in those countries, and the pandemic closing borders, they have not been able to supply the global demand. Furthermore, Turkey, a large lamb supplier, is tightening its grip on exported food stocks in preparation for a food crisis due to the war in Ukraine. Most lamb in the U.S. is processed to supply the global market, leaving little inventory for the U.S. lamb market.
What changes are you working on to address these challenges?
We recognize the need to have a stronger, more secure food system that gives farmers more power to negotiate, earn more than poverty wages, create economic development opportunities, and pave the way for land access. If we don’t secure our food system, we won’t have resiliency when external forces disrupt it, as we have seen in the past few years.
To address these issues, we are working in community with local stakeholders to secure our regional food system. These steps include creating access at multiple levels — pathways for land access for underrepresented farmers and access to agricultural infrastructure, including processing availability.
Part of this process for Central Grazing Company includes developing processing facilities as a community asset. We are building a facility that will help us get more affordable lamb for our customers and will also be a community resource for local food sovereignty. We are actively pursuing development plans to create a meat processing facility that will utilize a Perpetual Purpose Trust to ensure this agricultural infrastructure will remain a community asset indefinitely. We believe this will be an important step to building a more resilient local food system that benefits our business and our community.
To ensure your lamb cooks evenly, take it out of the fridge 30 minutes before cooking to allow it to come to room temperature.
When cooking lamb, it is important to consider the cut of meat. Fattier cuts of lamb should be roasted long and slow at a low temperature, while leaner cuts of meat should be cooked at a high temperature for the first several minutes and then at a lower temperature the rest of the time. Braising is a popular technique for cooking less-tender cuts of lamb. This involves roasting or simmering the meat with a small amount of liquid in a tightly covered pan. Braising helps break down the meat's connective tissues, resulting in a tender and flavorful dish. For smaller, thinner cuts, such as chops or steaks, a simple marinade followed by a quick cook time on a hot grill will result in flavorful, tender meat.
Your cooking time will vary depending on the size and cut of the lamb. Using a meat thermometer to check for doneness is important, as individual cuts may vary in cooking time. Insert the thermometer into the thickest part of the meat and check the temperature.
Download our full temperature guide for a full rundown of internal temperatures and cook times for different lamb cuts!
“Primal cuts” refers to the first piece of meat to be separated from the carcass of an animal during the butchering process, hence the name. These are generally large sections of the carcass, often referred to as “primals.” The primals are broken down further into secondary and tertiary cuts, or “sub-primal cuts,” which are the cuts you will typically find to purchase by name.
Lamb has five primals: shoulder, breast, rack, loin, and leg. Below, we’ve organized the cuts according to the primals and the various sub-primal cuts they can be broken down into. For each cut, we’ve provided cooking techniques and, when available, recipes in our collection to help you learn how to cook every cut of lamb. You’ll also want to refer to the temperature guide above to cook the meat to your preferred doneness.
Lamb neck is an under-utilized cut of lamb that you can often find relatively cheap, making it an excellent option for lamb lovers on a budget. Lamb neck can be sold in different forms, such as cut into small fillets or diced as "braising lamb." It can also be bought as bone-in lamb neck steaks, which are perfect for long, slow-cooked stews or curries.
Lamb neck contains a little sinew and silver skin that can be trimmed away easily, and it is nicely marbled with a little fat. A fillet of lamb neck is easily suited to feeding about 2-3 people.
Since lamb neck is a muscle, it can be tough if not cooked correctly. A low and slow cook is the safest way to achieve tender meat. As the cut is relatively small, a good 90-minute to two-hour braise will leave you with meat that falls off the bone, resulting in a delicious off-cut that is a great alternative to beef short ribs or lamb shoulder for a dinner party menu.
The shoulder is a heavily exercised muscle, so the stew meat cut from this primal can be tough and chewy. However, it is also highly flavorful, perfect for slow-cooking dishes.
Simmer the lamb stew over low heat so the liquid bubbles gently around the meat to prevent the excess fat from emulsifying and making the finished dish greasy. Check stew meat dishes after about 45 minutes for tenderness, as overcooking stew meat will cause it to fall apart and lose moisture.
Lamb stew meat is versatile and can be used in a variety of dishes. It can be used to make traditional stews, casseroles, and curries.
Lamb shoulder chops, also known as blade chops, are a delicious and versatile cut of meat that comes from the top front leg of the lamb. Lamb shoulder chops are best cooked bone-in, as this helps to tenderize the meat and impart more flavor. The bone-in chops can be cooked quickly or seared, which makes them ideal for a quick meal or BBQ. Lamb shoulder chops absorb marinades well, making the chops more tender and flavorful. Cover the chops with your favorite marinade in a resealable bag and let them marinate for at least an hour before cooking or even overnight.
Alternatively, the bone-in chops can be braised or slow-roasted, which is great for family meals or entertaining guests. While shoulder chops are thinner than other cuts of lamb, they contain a higher level of fat and connective tissue, which, when cooked slowly, melts away, producing a succulent and tender result. Shoulder chops are perfect for braising or slow-roasting, methods that allow the fat to render and the connective tissues to soften. Searing the chops at high heat before slow cooking also allows the exterior to develop a golden crust, adding flavor, texture, and visual appeal.
Denver ribs are a type of spare ribs that come from the lower part of the rib cage. Denver ribs should not be confused with rack of lamb, which comes from the rack primal cut. The ribs in the rack are located at the upper part of the rib cage, and they have a different flavor and texture than Denver ribs.
Denver ribs are separated from the breastbone and then split and usually comprise 7 to 8 riblets A typical rack of Denver ribs weighs between 1 and 1.5 pounds. One of the distinctive characteristics of Denver ribs is that they are prepared by removing fat, gristle, and connective tissue from the meat. This process ensures the meat is leaner and more tender than traditional spare ribs.
When preparing Denver ribs, remove the translucent membrane that is located on the underside of the rack. Use the tip of a knife to lift the membrane, then grab it with a paper towel and peel it off entirely.
One of the best ways to cook Denver ribs is to use slow-cooking techniques, such as roasting, grilling with indirect heat, sous-vide, smoking, or braising. These methods allow the connective tissue and fat in the meat to slowly melt and lubricate the meat, making it more tender and flavorful. Finish the ribs with a fast hit of high heat to create a beautiful crust. You can also cover them with a flavorful sauce. Some popular seasoning and sauce choices for Denver ribs include barbecue sauce, dry rubs, and marinades.
Lamb belly, also called lamb breast, is from the boneless, fatty underside of the lamb and is flavorful and very adaptable. Lamb belly is an often long, flat cut that is best marinated before being roasted. It’s often rubbed with spices or other ingredients before being rolled and tied with twine. As with any fatty cut, it's ideal to cook it low and slow, rendering the fat and leaving meat that falls apart.
Rack of lamb is a popular and delicious cut of meat that includes ribs 6 through 12 and is considered the most tender and mild-tasting part of the lamb. The rack of lamb can be prepared in several ways, including as a crown roast, separated into individual chops, double chops, Frenched, or as a lamb guard of honour.
One of the most common ways to cook a rack of lamb is in the oven using dry heat. This method allows the meat to cook evenly and retain its natural juices, resulting in a flavorful and tender dish. Before cooking, the rack of lamb should be seasoned with salt, pepper, and any other desired seasonings. Some people like to score the fat on top of the rack to allow for better browning and flavor infusion.
Frenched racks of lamb are prepared by having the meat scraped clean off the rib bones, leaving a more prominent and clean presentation. The exposed bones should be wrapped in aluminum foil to prevent burning during cooking. After cooking, let the rack rest for 15 minutes to allow the juices to redistribute.
To make a crown roast, two racks of lamb are tied together to form a circle, with the rib bones pointing upwards and the meat on the inside of the circle. This creates a stunning presentation and makes for an impressive centerpiece for a holiday or special occasion meal. Paper frills, known as manchettes, can be attached to the exposed bones for a traditional touch.
A lamb guard of honour is another impressive presentation that uses two interlinked racks of lamb. The rib ends are often Frenched to make interlacing easier and for a more dramatic effect. The racks are interlocked and tied with kitchen string before roasting.
Lamb rib chops, also known as "lamb lollipops," are a delicious and tender cut of meat that comes from the ribs of the lamb. These chops are sourced by separating the individual chops of each rib bone of a rack. Rib chops are made up of a large, single loin muscle and a slender rib bone. Slicing between the ribs creates a bone-in portion perfect for grilling or pan-searing. For a double chop, two chops are left attached to each other, resulting in a larger, meatier portion.
One of the advantages of lamb rib chops is that they do not have any sinew or connective tissues, which makes them easy to cook and gives them a tender, soft texture. The best method for cooking lamb rib chops is pan-searing, as they are too delicate for grilling. Pan-searing allows you to achieve a crispy exterior while keeping the inside juicy and tender.
Lamb loin roast is a succulent, flavorful, and tender cut of lamb meat obtained from the center of the lamb's back, also known as the "saddle." It is a popular cut of meat that can be cooked in a variety of ways to suit different tastes and preferences.
Lamb loin roast is best prepared using dry heat cooking methods such as roasting, grilling, or broiling. Cook lamb loin with care, as it can dry out easily if overcooked. Other cooking methods for lamb loin roast include brushing the loin with oil and sprinkling it with salt and pepper before grilling or broiling.
The lamb loin can be presented as chops instead of loin roast. Lamb loin chops have a T-shaped bone in the middle, which separates the meat into two sections. They are also sometimes referred to as lamb loin cutlets. The meat in lamb loin chops is often compared to beef in flavor and texture. The meat is tender and juicy, with a mild flavor that pairs well with many different seasonings and sauces.
Lamb loin chops are typically cooked quickly on the grill or in a pan. When cooked quickly, they develop a caramelized crust on the outside and have a pink, juicy center. We recommend cooking the chops to medium-rare or medium, which will allow the meat to retain its tenderness and flavor. To prepare lamb loin chops, start by seasoning them with salt and pepper or any other desired seasonings. Heat up a grill or pan on medium-high heat and add oil to prevent the meat from sticking. Once the grill or pan is hot, add the lamb loin chops and cook for 4-5 minutes per side for medium-rare or 5-6 minutes per side for medium. After cooking, allow the lamb loin chops to rest for a few minutes before serving.
The lamb tenderloin is a very small (about 3 ounces each) but extremely tender piece of meat. It is best cooked rare, as they are such a small, thin, and tender cut. Tenderloins are best lightly seasoned and treated as a thin steak — cooked over high heat for a very short period of time in a pan or on the grill. Drizzle them with a balsamic reduction or other flavorful sauce for a melt-in-your-mouth dish.
Lamb sirloin roast is a tender and flavorful cut. Sirloin is the muscle that connects the loin to the hind leg. Sometimes sold as part of the leg, it can be cooked separately, trussed for a roast, or grilled as a flavorful steak. A lamb sirloin roast can provide a flavorful dinner for two to three people that are relatively simple to prepare. A sirloin roast will often be rubbed in spices and browned in a hot pan before finishing at a lower heat in the oven.
Lamb shank is a meaty cut that comes from the lower part of the lamb leg. It is a flavorful and economical meat cut popular in many Mediterranean cuisines, such as Greek, Italian, French, and Moroccan. The shank has a bone running through the center, which provides a lot of flavors as it cooks.
Lamb shank best responds to a slow-cooking method, such as braising or stewing, to break down connective tissues and become tender and juicy.
Lamb shank may come with a thin, white membrane that can be trimmed away before cooking or left on to melt away during cooking. Brown the meat before slow cooking or braising to add a deeper flavor.
Lamb shank pairs well with warm spices, such as cinnamon and cloves, as well as bold herbs such as rosemary and mint. Mint sauce is a traditional accompaniment for lamb shank because the herb's sharp, clarifying flavor can stand up to the protein's equally sharp flavor profile. Other complementary sauces include bright, kicky salsa verde or chimichurri. When serving lamb shank, it is best to pair it with garnishes that can soak up its flavorful braising liquid, such as mashed potatoes or polenta. Simple preparations of fresh spring veggies like green beans, radishes, snow peas, asparagus, or mushrooms make excellent side dishes.
Osso Bucco (literally “bone with a hole”) references lamb shanks cut into rounds or cross-cut. Osso bucco is also the name of a traditional Italian dish that uses cross-cut shanks.
Traditionally, osso bucco is made with shanks cut into 2-inch-thick pieces and slow-cooked until tender, resulting in a succulent and flavorful dish. The recipe calls for the shanks to be cooked in some combination of wine, stock, and vegetables and then braised in the oven for around three hours, or until fork-tender. Osso bucco is typically served with a starchy side dish, such as risotto, gremolata, or mashed potatoes, to help soak up the flavorful sauce.
Lamb heart is a type of organ meat that is often overlooked but is actually an excellent source of protein and other essential nutrients. Lamb heart is also relatively easy to prepare and cook, making it a great option for those new to cooking with organ meats.
To prepare lamb heart for cooking, trim away as much fat and connective tissue as possible using kitchen scissors or a sharp knife. Once you have trimmed the heart, rinse it under cold water and soak it in a bowl of cold water mixed with a pinch of salt for about an hour. This will help remove excess blood and ensure the heart is clean and ready to cook.
To cook lamb hearts, use a low-fat cooking method like broiling or grilling. Before cooking, you can marinate the heart in your favorite spices and seasonings to add flavor and help tenderize the meat.
Want to prepare these cuts in your kitchen? Get lamb delivered directly to your door with the Central Grazing Lamb Box subscription! With the Lamb Box, you’ll be introduced to new cuts in addition to lamb cuts you know and love so that you can help support our value of nose-to-tail, no-waste meat production. We also have an extensive recipe catalog where you can find seasonal recipes to prepare your lamb box contents. Before each delivery, you’ll receive an email with information and what you can expect in your Lamb Box as well as seasonal recipes customized to each box.