Don’t let the curls fool you, sheep aren’t judged on which is the cutest, softest, or fluffiest; beneath that heap of wool is a market lamb or a breeding stock animal looking to win some blue ribbons! I will be the first to admit that grooming a sheep is just not in me, I don’t have the talent. But I promise that knowing how to judge sheep isn’t nearly as hard as grooming them!
To judge a market lamb, which is intended for slaughter at about 150 pounds, you look for the degree of muscling, degree of finish, balance and style, frame size, and soundness and structure — in that order. For a breeding ewe you look for balance and style, frame size, soundness and structure, degree of muscling, degree of leanness, and wool — in that order.
So no need to be sheepish, once ewe get past all the wool it’s easy! Let’s dive in on learning how to judge sheep and knowing what to know at your next livestock show!
Degree of Muscling
To evaluate the degree of muscling, take a look at the thickness through the center of the rear legs, and the width between them as the animal stands, the length and width of the loin, length of the hind saddle, and the shape over their rack.
First take a rear-view look at your animal, and measure the widest part. The widest part should be muscle from hip to hip, and that width should carry through the legs — your sheep should look square. The loin is set between the back of the ribs and the hips, and it is an important muscle for locomotion, so a nice long, wide loin is what you’re looking for. The hind saddle is basically just the rear half of the animal starting at the last rib, and it contains all the best cuts of meat such as the loin, sirloin, and legs. The fore saddle is from the last rib up to the base of the neck, and what you want is to have a slightly longer hind saddle than fore saddle. And finally the rack is the rack of ribs, and a wide rack is ideal, and the ability to feel the grooves of muscles as you run your hand from the fore ribs to rear ribs.
Degree of Finish
The degree of finish is related to the degree of muscling, frame size, and stage of maturity. Basically the ideal market lamb will have a good degree of muscling, which fits cleanly in their frame, and the animal should be at the right size for their age. Market lambs are normally ready for slaughter no later than six to 10 months, so it’s best if they hit their prime within that time period.
You can evaluate finish on an individual basis, but when comparing sheep in a class, you’ll probably use degree of finish to help you rank them.
Balance and Style
For balance and style, evaluate the body width, depth, and length. You actually don’t want the width of your sheep to be completely even throughout; more width in the more desirable cuts is better, meaning that the widest part of your sheep should be in the center of the leg muscle, and they should get gradually more narrow through the front end.
For depth, measure from the top of the back to the bottom of the belly, and the belly should be at the same level all the way from the chest to the teats. Your sheep should look like a big barrel. Your sheep also gets balance and style points from a wide, level chest floor, angularity over the shoulders, a straight topline, and a high set to the neck.
Frame size is important because if the ideal slaughter ready lamb is around 150 pounds, that lamb should be at that weight without being too fat. So ask yourself if your lamb is tall and long enough to have the capacity to grow a big rack of ribs, loins, and legs.
Frame size is important for breeding ewes because they need to be able to comfortably carry lambs throughout pregnancy, and have the capacity to feed them. The ideal animal will not look stocky, stubby, or gangly!
Soundness and Structure
The soundness and structure concerns the animal’s ability to move around comfortably for years to come, so evaluate the feet, pasterns, hocks, knees, rump, and shoulders.
All toes should be pointed forward, and pasterns should be about a 45 degree angle from the ground. The knees should be straight and pointing forward just like the toes. When standing comfortably on their own, the farthest point on the twist should fall exactly in line with the point of the hock, if the hock is further out than the twist the animal is sickle, and if it is further in than the twist your animal is posty.
The top of the shoulders should be in line with the front of the rump, but from hips to dock you want a slight slope downward. Also evaluate the length of the rump. A lot of length from flank to twist is ideal, and remember, this is one of the best cuts of meat from your market lamb, so you want lots of room!
Degree of Leanness
The degree of leanness is evaluating the fat cover. The thickest fat cover on your animal should be over their back, and ideally it would be a quarter inch thick or a little less, so when preparing your animal for show, make sure that they don’t have any excess fat. Besides, sheep don’t need much fat, they have all that wool to keep them insulated and warm!
Wool isn’t very important on market lambs that are intended for slaughter, but it is important for breeds that are meant to be raised for their wool. Wool is judged on character, color, uniformity, and wastiness.
To learn more about judging wool, take a look at Texas A&M’s guide and the University of Wyoming’s video on wool judging, which I found really helpful.
I love the University of Kentucky’s guide on judging sheep, but they also have lots of other sheep resources, like learning the breeds, anatomy and retail cuts. And remember, because sheep have thick wool, you have to judge them by feeling them too. You’ll want to evaluate their fat cover and length of loin especially by feel.
Hopefully judging sheep doesn’t have the same effect on you as counting them! Judging sheep isn’t hard, and you can practice on real sheep classes online. Now even if you can’t groom a sheep like me, hopefully you can judge them like a pro!
Elizabeth Maslyn is a Cornell University student pursuing a career in the dairy industry. Her passion for agriculture has driven her desire to learn more, and let the voices of our farmers be heard.