Of Grass and Grain

If you have ever been hesitant to taste lamb, Rick Moore’s mouthwatering description alone could win you over. “Think sweet roast beef,” said the Harrison County lamb farmer and Farm Bureau member. That should be incentive enough for any skeptic, yet there is still a misconception that needs to be addressed—that lamb and mutton are one and the same. “That stems back to World War II when soldiers were fed mutton, which is aged sheep, not lamb,” explained Moore. “Mutton has a strong smell, strong taste and tougher texture, and it created a mindset that ruined lamb for a lot of people.”

Rick is the seventh of eight generations of family farmers who for more than 200 years have nurtured the pastures that nourish the flocks. Called Cottage Hill Farm, it is 700 acres of steep rolling hills. “Some would call it ‘rough,’ ” said Moore. “We don’t grow any cereal crops but seed a lot of alfalfa. This land is ideally suited for grazing and there have always been sheep raised here.”

It wasn’t until 1959 though that Moore’s father and grandfather began raising sheep full time, gradually adding acreage and expanding the flock to what is now the biggest ewe farm in Ohio. This year, Moore’s 950 ewes will produce approximately 1,500 lambs. In about six months, each lamb will grow to about 120 pounds, primarily on rich pasture grass. But Moore’s experience is that the majority of those who eat lamb prefer the taste and marbling that finishing the lamb on a grain diet achieves.

“We have some of the highest white clover and blue grass pastures,” said Moore, “but we need the corn and soybean meal to put some ‘bloom’ or a beneficial layer of fat on the carcass.” The lambs are sent to Zrile Brothers Packing in western Pennsylvania, just 5 miles over the Ohio border for processing and packing. Most of the cuts will go to New York City but some will come back to Ohio to Foster’s Meats at Cleveland’s West Side Market; Rulli Brothers in Austintown and Boardman; and the Mediterranean Market in Middleburg Heights.

Moore’s philosophy behind raising sheep and lamb is that every part of the animal, from the wool to the meat, needs to have value—minimal waste. He achieves that goal through breeding. “The foundation of the flock begins with Merino sheep, a fine wool sheep with a high value for the wool,” explained Moore. “We cross that with a Dorset, a good meat type sheep, a good mother and good milking.” The resulting ewe is then bred with a Sussex, another good meat breed. The result is that the lambs are not only excellent for their meat but produce quality wool, shorn and baled at Cottage Hill. Close to 10,000 pounds of wool a year are sold unprocessed (or “raw”) to Peace Fleece in Maine where it is blended with wools from all around the world.

“Part of the challenge in raising lamb is maintaining consistency,” said Moore. “Because we have control of the entire process, meaning selecting the breed of the ewes and ram, we can raise lambs that are the same in weight, size and structure. Consumers demand consistency and because of the volume we produce, we can make them consistently available.”

Cottage Hill also stands out as good stewards of the land. It has won the Ohio Environmental Stewardship Award from the Ohio Sheep Improvement Association and most recently was recognized for its environmental stewardship efforts by the American Sheep Industry.

“The criteria for getting both of these awards is based on our ability to make a living raising lamb with as little impact on the environment as possible,” said Moore, which includes raising the flocks using as many natural methods as possible as well as developing springs for water, consistently improving the pastures and making the entire process more efficient and beneficial for the land.

Loin chops and rack of lamb are considered two of the most desirable cuts of lamb but as a farmer, Moore points out that some of the less desirable or lesser known cuts are “unbelievably tasty” like the neck roast which can be tedious to prepare and to consume, but the morsels are superior in sweetness and tenderness.

Ask for a recipe and Moore is hard pressed to offer one up. “Just a little salt and pepper and cook it just right,” he recommended. “Good lamb doesn’t need a lot.”

Marilou Suszko is a food writer from Vermilion. She is the author of Farms and Foods of Ohio: From Garden Gate to Dinner Plate and The Locavore’s Kitchen.

Cottage Hill Farm
Rick and Marcie Moore
35800 Cadiz-Piedmont Road
Cadiz, Ohio 43907