by Tamara Scully
Sheep in the United States historically were raised for their wool. Meat breeds came next. But dairy sheep are a relatively new here, with the first licensed sheep dairy, Hollow Road Farm, in Stuyvesant, NY, appearing in 1985. The North American Dairy Sheep Association was established in 1987. It is estimated that about 250 dairy sheep operations are in existence in all of North America, with the majority concentrated in Ontario and Quebec Provinces in Canada.
Good data is not available, so the exact size of the sheep’s milk industry here is not known.
“The North American dairy sheep industry is very new,” Dr. David Thomas, Professor of Sheep Management and Genetics, University of Wisconsin-Madison said. “This whole new area of producing milk from sheep” remains in its infancy in the United States.
Not so in other parts of the world. Mediterranean countries — Italy, Greece, Spain, Portugal, France, Turkey, Israel, Syria and more — are major producers of sheep’s milk.
“The main use of sheep milk in the world is for the production of cheese,” Dr. Thomas said.
It isn’t that we don’t like sheep’s milk here. Sheep’s milk, consumed as cheese, enjoys a large market in the United States, with over 50 million pounds of sheep’s milk cheese being imported annually. Italy is the biggest exporter of sheep’s milk cheese, and Pecorino-Romano, made with milk from Sarda sheep, is one product consumed voraciously here. We also enjoy Manchego cheese from Spain’s Manchega breed, and Rocquefort from France’s Lacaune sheep.
The United States is “the greatest market for sheep milk cheese in the world,” leaving plenty of room for expansion of domestic production, Dr. Thomas said. While it is “somewhat of a luxury foodstuff,” with consumption dropping dramatically during the recent recession years in 2008-2010, that has begun its climb back up to pre-economic hardship consumption levels.
There are well-known farmstead sheep cheesemakers in the United States. Hidden Springs Creamery in Wisconsin has grown to over 500 head in a farmstead creamery operation, winning many awards for their cheeses. Bellwether Farms, in California, has its cheeses featured at many wineries in the region. The Old Chatham Sheepherding Company was one of the earliest, established in 1993 and recently sold to the Galton family, who have relocated the more than 2,000 sheep and the creamery to the Finger Lakes region of New York.
The first dairy breed sheep didn’t find their way into the United States until 1993. Today, there are two breeds — Lacaune and East Friesian, available to U.S. producers, with most operations using crosses of the two. Lacaune have slightly higher milk component values, with East Friesian produce more milk, and more lambs.
“The best bet is to cross East Friesians with Lacaunes,” taking advantage of each breed’s best traits, Dr. Thomas said. “Also take advantage of hybrid vigor,” which comes from cross-breeding.
The British Milk Sheep is another breed, available in Canada. It hasn’t yet made its way into the United States. This breed is a cross of many others, developed with a heavy selection emphasis on milk production.
Crossbred sheep are readily available for those entering into sheep dairying. In the early days of the industry, however, non-milk breeds were used. Based on data from the Spooner Agricultural Research Station at the University of Wisconsin, the difference in milk output can be seen. In 1996, researchers milked non-dairy breed sheep, achieving 250 pounds of milk per ewe in annual production. In 2010, their cross-bred, primarily East Friesian flock produced 850 pounds of milk per ewe annually. While not all of the difference is due to a switch to dairy breeds, much of it is.
Using the original Dorset crosses on the farm, research saw 56.9 pounds of milk per ewe, per lactation. But when they began using East Friesian crosses — with most ewes only one-quarter East Friesian, and a few one-half — the milk production per lactation increased to 109.1 pounds of milk per ewe.
“You can’t start an economical dairy sheep operation without dairy sheep,” Dr. Thomas emphasized.
But there is no organized genetic improvement program for dairy sheep in the United States. There is no pedigree database or registry. While some producers do keep their own records on individual ewe milk production, the lack of data available limits genetic selection and improvement.
“This is a real problem” for the industry, Dr. Thomas said.
Profitable sheep dairying
Sheep’s milk is not the same as cow’s milk, or goat’s milk. In fact, cow’s and goat’s milk are very similar in composition. But ewe’s milk is much higher in fat, protein, and total solids. While it requires nine pounds of cow’s or goat’s milk to make one pound of cheese, it only takes five pounds of sheep’s milk to do the same.
“Sheep’s milk has twice the yield,” and is loved by cheese makers, Dr. Thomas said.
Before beginning a sheep’s milk dairy, a market needs to be established. Many producers opt to do their own processing, and build their own consumer base. Others find processors to purchase their milk. Either way, it’s important to know beforehand that a stable market exists for the milk.
Pricing of sheep’s milk is not component based, as it is with cow’s milk. Milk quality standards are the same as with cow’s milk. Bacterial counts of under 100,000 per milliliter and somatic cell counts of under 750,000 are needed for Grade A milk, with Grade B having the same somatic cell count, but a 300,000 bacteria/milliliter limit.
“I think that a producer needs to be in this $.80 -$1.10 range if they expect to make a reasonable profit milking sheep,” Dr. Thomas said.
Parlor setups can range from elevated platforms with hand milking into buckets, to double parlors with milk pipelines and parlor pits for the milkers. Low-line parlors have the advantage of requiring less vacuum pressure, as the milk is assisted by gravity, while high-line parlors, where the lines run overhead, can use one line for both sides of the parlor. Rotary parlors are also possible, just like for cows.
An artificial lamb-rearing system, where lambs are weaned immediately and fed milk replacer for 30 days, prior to dry food, allows the producer to capture all of the milk. Automatic milk replacer machines, which mix the replacer fresh on demand, and provide it to the lambs, are available. They must be cleaned thoroughly each day to prevent illness.
As the industry advances, feeding techniques and nutrition have gotten better over time, increasing milk output. Advances in technology, such as the automatic milk replacer feeding machines, allow dairy sheep producers to raise animals economically, and to capture the value of the mother’s milk, as in a cow dairy. Genetic selection for dairy sheep in the United States needs to improve.
Because sheep’s milk contains a high percentage of solids, it can be frozen without loss of quality. For small producers, being able to freeze the milk, which must be done in a commercial unit, holding the milk in the -13 to -17 degrees Fahrenheit range, means that they can accumulate milk until there is enough to sell to the processor, and was important in establishing the dairy sheep industry in the United States.
Dr. Thomas’s presentation was sponsored by the Let’s Grow Committee of the American Sheep Industry Association, and is available via the internet: www.sheepusa.org.