By Gary Cutrer
You would think in an area where a lot of sheep are produced you’d be able to find a reliable source of lamb in a local retail market. But that is not the case around San Angelo, Texas. Or at least it hasn’t consistently been the case. Some of the lamb cuts you do find could be American lamb or they could be imported lamb, depending on price and availability for the retailer or retail chain. And, the quality of what is available can vary as well from tough and mutton like to tender and mild.
Philip Glass, who ranches at Water Valley, Texas, near San Angelo, has identifed that problem and the potential market locally and even nationally for a reliable supply of consistently high quality lamb cuts.
Glass’s goal is not to serve discount retailers or grocers. He is offering Dorper lamb as a gourmet product at a price that’s only slightly higher than the currenty going rate for lamb. A sale price for lamb at the local HEB at presstime was $9.99 a pound. Philip sells premium Dorper cuts currently around $12 per pound for lamb chops and $20 a pound for rack of lamb.
Philip and wife Jennifer raise Dorper sheep at their Half Circle Six Ranch near Water Valley, just northwest of San Angelo. It’s the Dorper breed that makes the difference, Glass said, in the quality of lamb he offers for sale.
“We’ve got all the conventional cuts,” he said. He offers boneless leg, boneless shoulder, loin chops, rib chops, rack of lamb, lamb shank and leg steak, as well as ground lamb, at a store in San Angelo, Pecans.com.
Glass said people are timid about trying lamb for dinner because they’re afraid they don’t know how to cook it. They think that if they cook it wrong it will have a mutton taste. Not true for Dorper lamb, he said.
“That’s just not the case for Dorper lamb. You don’t have to know how to cook it,” he said. “Just like you don’t have to know how to cook a (beef) ribeye. You put some salt, pepper, garlic on it and you cook it — fried, grilled, baked . . . the same is true for Dorper lamb. It has a mild flavor, has been proven by the USDA more tender than any breed in the U.S.”
Sales of lamb cuts at Pecans.com have been best around grilling holidays in the summer, such as July 4, and during the Christmas gift giving season. And Glass is expecting good demand for the coming Easter season.
Though Dorper lamb is mild tasting and tender, meat from other sheep breeds can be just as good or it can be strong tasting. Meat quality and tenderness varies and is not always dependent on breed but on many other variables. But Dorper lamb is consistenly good, Glass said, and that’s the kind he wants to sell.
Americans only consume eight tenths of a pound of lamb annually on a per-person basis compared to the USDA estimate of around 65 pounds of beef per person per year. One reason for that is because some people don’t like lamb or have the perception that they don’t like it because they’ve only had strong tasting lamb. And, lamb is price prohibitive for many consumers at $10 per pound in the supermarket when beef prices are much lower on average. Another reason lamb consumption is low is lack of availability or only seasonal availability.
Philip and Jennifer are hoping to change that, at least locally and for their online customers, by keeping a steady supply of Dorper lamb available.
Is the current U.S. Dorper population big enough to satisfy demand? On this level, yes, Glass said. And because the breed is popular and easy to care for, more and more ranchers will be raising Dorpers, he added.
Glass selects potential slaughter lambs from his commercial Dorper flock, consisting of all high percentage Dorpers.
“We just kind of fatten them up and round them off before they go to slaughter. They don’t stay on feed a long period of time.” The lambs get a 14 percent commercial grain ration and free choice hay for one to three months until they come up to target size, about 110 pounds at 6 to 8 months of age. Then they go to slaughter.
Glass has been sending groups of lambs to a small processor in Fredericksburg but will soon be using Sklenarik’s in Miles, a much shorter drive from San Angelo. Both facilities are federally inspected. That’s currently a requirement for interstate sales of meat, and Pecans.com sells some lamb to customers in California, Arizona and other states via its website.
Glass said the cost of processing is a big portion of the overhead in his business. He thinks a sheep and goat slaughter facility such as the now closed Rancher’s Lamb would help him lower that cost as long as the slaughter plant’s volume was big enough to keep it going.
“We were wanting to brand the product to show that we have something different, so we made our own label, ‘Half Circle Six Ranches Dorper Lamb,’” Glass said.
Another part of the label claims “Natural Dorper Lamb” because it’s a natural product, meaning no hormones were used in production and the meat is minimally processed.
Pecans.com is a retail and online gourmet foods market operated by Pecan Producers, Inc., a pecan grower-owned cooperative.