December 12 was a full moon and the first really cold day we’ve had this year, and that was the day one of my Navajo Churro ewes decided to have her lamb. I admit, my farming style is somewhat hands off, which is exactly why I chose the Navajo Churro breed when I started raising a small flock of sheep 8 years ago. A multi purpose rare breed, they can be raised for meat, milk or wool, but are not really champions in any category. Perhaps their greatest attribute is that they are low maintenance, seldom require veterinary care or help with birthing, and have good mothering skills. In fact, I often only notice a new lamb when I look out the window to see a small wobbly figure following it’s mother in our 2 acre orchard. Despite the fact that the sheep have a shelter with fresh straw to sleep on, they prefer to sleep under the stars, regardless of the weather. So this weekend, when the little black ram-lamb was born into cold wet conditions with a forecast for snow and sub zero temperatures, I agonized with the decision to intervene or not.
In the 12 years that I have spent on a farm, raising a few animals for meat has become more and more difficult. New slaughter regulations and increasing centralization have meant the disappearance of critical rural infrastructure, from finding someone to haul animals to the closure of many smaller abattoirs. Veterinarians can make more money giving dogs hip replacements in a big city then working in a rural area. A recent cover story in the Vancouver Sun stated that over 3 million farm animals die in Canada each year during transport to slaughter houses, a trip that can be up to 56 hours long without food or water. Calling up a food service supplier and ordering a box of industrially produced lamb racks from far away is just not an option for me. Local lamb, either from my flock or one of the few remaining local producers is a very special product and I need to use every piece of the animal.
All this ran through my head as the sun was setting and I could see the newborn lamb huddled with it’s mother in the freezing rain on the far end of the field. So my son and I caught the lamb and brought it under shelter to warm it up and dry it off but the mother, practically feral, refused to follow. In the end, we tried to bottle-feed the lamb some powdered sheep milk and we placed it in a dog kennel in some straw. But seperating it from it’s mother just didn’t seem right and was giving stress to us all. So we left the door of the kennel open a little. The next morning, after a night of tossing and turning, I was relieved to find the lamb nursing from it’s mother at the end of the snowy field. I made them a big nest under a tree with some hay, and I am happy to report mother and baby are doing just fine.
Cider Braised Lamb Bellies with White Turnips and Leeks
With my stash of spring lamb legs and chops long gone, I decided to capitalize on the popularity of braised pork bellies and make a version with lamb. The alcohloic cider is made from heritage apples in the very same orchard where the sheep graze and the turnips and leeks are from my winter garden.
6 lamb bellies, fat trimmed
1 Tbsp. olive oil
The white and light green of 2 leeks, halved and sliced
1 stalk of diced celery
1 carrot, diced
1 large clove of garlic, minced
6 sprigs of fresh thyme and 1 bayleaf, whole
salt and pepper
1 and a 1/2 Cups of hard cider
4 white turnips, cut into wedges of 8
3 Tbsp. chopped parsley
In a large saute pan or braising pot, heat the oil and add the lamb bellies with a little salt. Sear on both sides on high heat, remove and set aside. Reduce temperature to med. high and add the leeks, celery, carrot and garlic with a little more salt and saute until the leeks are soft and translucent. Before the vegetables start to brown, deglaze with the cider, add the thyme sprigs, bay leaf and the lamb bellies. Bring the pan to a simmer, cover with a lid and braise in the oven for 45 minutes at 360. F. After 45 minutes, remove the thyme and bay leaf, and add the turnip wedges and cook for an additional 15 minutes. Before serving, remove any fat from the top of the liquid, taste and adjust seasoning. Sprinkle with parsley and serve.