Planning for your 4-H sheep project animal: Lamb selection

Third article in series featuring tips and tricks as you prepare for and select your 4-H market lamb.

Lamb selection takes place at many locations throughout the spring. Photo: Ashley AcMoody Herman.
Lamb selection takes place at many locations throughout the spring. Photo: Ashley AcMoody Herman.

As spring weather approaches, many youth across Michigan begin looking for their 4-H market lamb. Caring for a lamb requires forward thinking and creating a plan designed to see your project through to the end. In addition to the requirement of selecting the animal, there is also a financial burden of caring for an animal throughout the duration of your project. This three-part series from Michigan State University Extension will review important sheep project content and address three main topics: preparations for your market lamb, estimating costs of care and lamb selection. These tips and tricks will help you be more prepared for your 4-H sheep project experience.

The final article in this series focusses on lamb selection. Sheep projects are usually selected in one of two ways: purchased or chosen from the individuals or families flock. Here are a few items to keep in mind when selecting your sheep project.

Time of fair or exhibition

The dates of the fair are one of the most important factors in animal selection. For example, a person exhibiting at a June fair is looking for a heavier weight lamb than a person exhibiting at an August fair. When selecting a lamb, envision what you believe the lamb will look like when they have reached the proper amount of finish, or fat cover, and weigh 135 to 150 pounds. This is the most desirable market weight and along with your fair or exhibition rules, what you should be shooting for in regards to final weight at fair. Additionally, select lambs that will stay within their frame size and skeletal design when they reach their proper finishing weight.

Growth potential

Healthy lambs will generally gain 0.5 to 0.8 pounds per day. Many times, 4-H project lambs will gain over 0.5 pounds per day because they often have more desirable genetics, are raised in small groups and receive more individualized attention. One factor that will help in determining how much and how efficiently your market lambs will grow is looking at the feed efficiency value. The feed efficiency value measures the amount of feed a lamb requires to gain 1 pound. A feed efficiency value of 5.3 means a lamb has to eat 5.3 pounds of feed to increase its body weight by 1 pound. A low feed efficiency value is more desirable.

With your end goal in mind of marketing your lamb at your county fair or show, do simple math before selecting your lamb. For example, if you have 110 days to feed your lamb, it will be best to start your project with lamb that weighs around 75 pounds (110 x 0.5 pounds per day = 55 pounds gain; 80 pounds + 55 pounds gain = 130-pound market lamb). If the lamb gains 0.6 pounds per day, its finished weight will be 141 pounds. Both fall in the desired range of market weights.

Using the previous example, you can decide at what weight to buy your project lambs. If you select a heavier lamb or if you believe your lamb will gain more rapidly, fewer days will be required. Under those conditions, you can select your lamb or start your project later. Keeping accurate records the first year will help you plan your next project more accurately. One thing to keep in mind is lambs will burn calories when exercised.


There are sometimes divisions within sheep shows. These divisions include gender (ewe versus whether), breed (Dorset, Hampshire, Southdown, Suffolk, etc. verses crossbred) and weight (lightweight, middleweight, heavyweight). Although these divisions are determined at the fair, it is an option to target a specific division in which you would like to compete.

Picking a lamb

Selecting your sheep project animal will be one of the most exciting and possibly challenging decisions you make. Some animals that you select will not fall within your budget and therefore, will not be a good choice for you. To learn more about budgeting, review the Estimating Costs article.

Selection begins with three fundamentals: muscle, balance and structure. Your ideal lamb will feature these attributes:

  • Heavy muscled. Starting at the front and working your way back:
    • Top shape (length and width of the rack)
    • Loin shape (length, width and depth of the loin muscle)
    • Width through the leg (width and curvature from stifle to twist)
    • Base width (width at the ground between the rear legs)
  • Well balanced:
    • Proportional (the front and rear half of the animal are about the same depth)
    • Correct lines (animal has a straight topline and underline)
  • Structurally correct:
    • Correct shoulder angle (has an angle to the shoulder that easily ties into the rest of the body)
    • Correct set to the pastern (has enough angle to cushion to the animal’s motion without being excessive)
    • Ability to travel with ease (moves without restriction having the rear foot step towards the imprint left by the front foot on each side)

With decisions made about the weight, age and divisions desired for exhibition, you can now select a lamb. Using the criteria listed above and your previous knowledge, you are ready to enjoy the experience of selecting your animal project. Farms have their own websites, and the Michigan Sheep Producers Association and Michigan Club Lamb Association have lists that may be helpful in locating sheep project animals.

Watching the development of your selected animal will be a rewarding and educational experience. Continue to set goals for your project and use resources like the 4-H Sheep Project Snapshot and Animal Science Anywhere Lessons to help provide recommendations for content learning and discovery of new opportunities.

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