Question: Like most homesteaders, I’d love to find a way to earn some money on the farm (in our case, 25 acres of stoney hills). Recently I heard of milking sheep, which sounds interesting. Is this another one of those pie-in-the-sky get-rich-quick schemes? How much milk does a sheep give, and what’s the market for sheep milk? What are the business prospects? The pros and cons?
Unlike the early days of ostrich farming or Boer goats, nobody is suggesting that milking sheep is a way to get rich quick. Or at all, for that matter. And yet, sheep dairying appears to have some interesting possibilities.
One of the most impressive arguments goes like this: By some estimates, Americans consume 73 million pounds of sheep milk cheese per year. But 72 million pounds of that is imported.
Translate this into sheep numbers. That 72 million pounds of imported cheese represents about 360 million pounds of milk, which means at least 600,000 good quality dairy sheep. North America has an estimated 5,120.
Paul and Sally Haskins, River Falls, Wisconsin, milk about 170 ewes, including East Friesian, Suffolk, Icelandic, Laucaune and crosses of the four breeds. Most North American dairy sheep have some East Friesian and/or Laucaune blood.
Here’s another eye-popping set of numbers. In recent years cow milk has been selling for around 12¢ a pound, and goat milk for 29¢, while the Wisconsin Sheep Dairy Cooperative has been paying 54¢.
One more: sheep milk cheese commonly retails for $20 a pound, and $50 is not unheard of in restaurants. By contrast, a fairly good cow milk cheddar or Swiss can be had for under $4 a pound.
Other attractions for small farmers are the seasonality of milk production (generally from April to September, or less), and the opportunity to increase your income by making the cheese yourself. In some parts of the country this might be a necessity. We’ll come to that later, but first, let’s take a closer look at dairy sheep and sheep milk cheese.
The history of sheep milk cheese
Most people are aware that sheep have been milked, and the milk has been made into cheese, for thousands of years, mostly in the Middle East and the Mediterranean region. A few of these, such as Roquefort, have been available in the U.S. for many years. Only recently have Americans acquired the sophisticated tastes, and the fat wallets, that make specialty cheeses marketable on a relatively wider basis.
There were articles on sheep milk cheese in COUNTRYSIDE more than 25 years ago. Back then it was almost entirely a homestead enterprise, a “hippie farmer” project along the lines of candle-making and organic gardening. A few people milked “regular” sheep, commonly Dorsets or Polypays, by hand, and made a few pounds of cheese in their kitchens.
But organic gardening (and to some extent, candle-making) became more “mainstream.” Gourmet and peasant gourmet cooking gained popularity. American wines began to equal, and even surpass, imported wines, both in quality and quantity.
Cheese imports soared, and American sheep dairying took a few tiny steps to try to keep up.
One was the formation of the Wisconsin Sheep Dairy Cooperative.
A cooperative is formed
In the early 1990s a couple of small cheese factories in the Upper Mississippi River basin handled sheep milk. By 1996 they were out of business, leaving the few sheep milk producers then in existence without a market.
A cheese plant in southwestern Wisconsin, Montchevre (specializing in goat cheese) expressed an interest in sheep milk, but only if they could work with a single source that would handle all the licensing, annual inspections, monthly milk sampling, inventory management and payment to farmers. This led to a meeting of existing and potential sheep milk producers in the midwest, which resulted in the establishment of the Wisconsin Sheep Dairy Cooperative.
This group functioned as a producer agent for Montchevre during the 1996 and 1997 milking seasons. In 1998 it became licensed as a dairy plant, which allowed it to market milk to additional customers. WSDC now ships milk as far as New York.
The only other sheep milk marketing cooperative in North America is Ewenity Dairy Cooperative in Ontario, Canada. However, the Canadian dairy sheep industry is struggling right now for several reasons, not the least of which is the Canadian BSE (mad cow) crisis.
The Dairy Sheep Association of North America (DSANA) was founded in 2002 to foster the industry, but is not a marketing organization.
In general, North American commercial sheep dairying is concentrated in New England and adjacent areas in Canada, and the Upper Midwest. Because of limited milk marketing opportunities, an estimated 50 percent of North American sheep milk production is made into cheese on the farm. This is sold to individuals, local food stores, and restaurants.
Breeds of Dairy Sheep
The vast majority of sheep in the U.S. are raised for meat and wool. All that is asked of a ewe is that she produce enough milk to feed her lambs up to weaning.
This means that even a decent ewe of a meat or wool breed rarely produces more than 100-200 pounds of milk in a lactation lasting perhaps 90 days. This isn’t enough to make milking them worthwhile.
However, where sheep have been milked for thousands of years, some animals have been bred for milk production.
Today, breeds such as East Friesian (Germany), Lacaune (France), Sarda (Italy), Chios (Greece), British Milksheep (U.K.) and Awassi and Assaf of Israel produce from 400 to 1,100 pounds of milk a year.
The most common and productive dairy sheep in North America have some East Friesian blood, with Lacaune a distant second. Both were imported only in the last 10 years, and only in extremely limited numbers. (There is only one Lacaune breeder in North America, in Canada.)
The glitch is that new imports of any breed, including sperm and embryos, are next to impossible under current regulations, which have become even more stringent with the recent mad cow scare.
Alice Henriksen and Dan Guertin, Stillwater, Minnesota, take a ‘minimalist approach’ to sheep dairying. Their 120 East Friesian crosses are outside all year, and the milking parlor is a plastic-covered greenhouse ‘temporary’ building to reduce taxes. They milk only from June to September, with hired help, and sell their milk to the Wisconsin Sheep Dairy Cooperative.
There are a number of sheep in the U.S. producing 600 pounds of milk a year, but not nearly enough to meet the demand. And even this is far off the potential of 1,100 pounds. However, the American average is only 180 pounds a year. Not surprisingly, genetic improvement is a major goal of the dairy sheep industry.
The University of Wisconsin Ag Research Station at Spooner, in northwestern Wisconsin, is finding that a cross of 3/4 East Friesian and 1/4 Lacaune produces a good dairy sheep. This includes the economic consideration that East Friesians produce 20 more lambs per 100 ewes than pure Lacaunes, since meat and wool sales are essential components of sheep dairy profits.
In brief, don’t plan on starting a successful sheep dairy with any of the common meat/wool breeds.
The hand milking of 25 years ago gave way to machine milking with buckets, the buckets being carried to the bulk tank (cooler). Today the buckets have been replaced by pipeline systems which pump the milk directly from the sheep to the bulk tank.
What this means is that the beginner can expect to spend in the neighborhood of $50,000 on milking equipment, including a freezer, before selling the first drop of milk, according to the University of Wisconsin Department of Animal Sciences. (And electricity for that freezer will cost about $2,000 a year.)
The milk must be cooled to below 40ºF within two hours, and frozen in five-gallon plastic milk bags (40 pounds per bag) to -10º within 12 hours.
While freezing does offer advantages to both the farmer and the cheesemaker, it’s also more costly and labor-intensive for both. Problems include loss of milk and cream that sticks to the bags, and temperature variations during transport. (Warmed to 25º, the milk is still solid, but quality deteriorates.)
J. Thomas Clark runs Old Chatham Sheepherding Company in Old Chatham, New York, the largest sheep milk and sheep dairy product producer in the U.S. He buys milk from the Wisconsin cooperative, and has been processing frozen milk for more than eight years. He notes that he occasionally encounters “processing problems that are a mystery,” and he believes that “characteristics of frozen milk handling and processing must be looked at more closely. We strongly believe that additional research on both the controls and the handling of frozen milk are necessary.”
Unlike dairy goats, sheep are milked from behind. They either climb up ramps to raised milking platforms, or remain at ground level while the milkers work in pits. Height of the ramps or depth of the pits depends on personal preference.
Some pipelines run below the sheep, while others are overhead, also a matter of preference.
Sheep are admitted to the milkroom in groups of six, 12 or even 24 at a time, depending on the number of stanchions, and eagerly enter the stanchions to get at the feed. The concentrate is dropped into the feed trough, usually via conveyors or augers. When the animals are in place the stanchions roll back, forcing the sheep into place for milking. When milking is completed the stanchions are rolled forward, the sheep exit the parlor, and the next group comes in.
Steven and Jody Read of Nerstrand, Minnesota, milk as many as 525 ewes and last year produced 220,000 pounds of milk from February to November, for an average of around 425 pounds per ewe. With three people, milking 500 sheep takes 3-1/2 hours, “from sanitizing to cups off.” But cleanup takes almost as long as milking.
And in another take on that ol’ economy of scale, Steven figures that with four people their setup could handle 1,200-1,400 ewes.
General flock management differs little from that seen in meat/wool operations. Dairy lambs are somewhat more delicate, and losses of 15% are not unusual.
There are several methods of handling lambs.
A few years ago it was common to leave the lambs with the ewes until weaning at 30-60 days, and only then start milking.
This milking setup at Shepherds Way, Nerstrand, Minnesota, is pretty typical of sheep diaries. The milkers work in a pit below ground level while the sheep eat from a moveable stanchion. Notice the pipeline system. And yes, goat lovers: sheep are milked from behind!
Today the system used by the Spooner Research Station is more common. Lambs are left with the ewes for 12-24 hours. Then the lambs are bottle fed every three hours for one or two days. Next they go to a training pen where five to eight lambs are on an automatic nursing machine. By day five or six, groups of 30 are assembled, still with automatic nursing machines. Lambs are weaned by day 30.
There are variations between these two extremes. In one, the ewes are milked once a day while the lambs are nursing and twice daily after weaning.
Dairy sheep are raised on pasture, often alfalfa, with supplemental hay, and get grain rations in the milking parlor. Concentrates vary widely from farm to farm. Concentrates often include corn but barley, rye, beet pulp, sunflower meal, extruded soybean meal, and ground alfalfa are also fed. Some shepherds are feeding haylage or corn silage.
According to Dr. David Thomas of the University of Wisconsin, total feed requirements for a ewe will depend upon her lactation length. A ewe milking for 180 days would require approximate 1,600 pounds of alfalfa hay, 325 pounds of corn and 45 pounds of soybean meal per year if these were the selected feedstuffs. A mineral mix prepared for sheep should be available free choice at all times.
Nutrition, health care, housing, fencing, predator control, shearing etc. are the same for both meat/wool and dairy sheep.
Because sheep are seasonal breeders and mate from September to December, generally, lambing occurs from about February through May. It follows that milking is also seasonal, often from March or April until about September. Expect a lactation of 90-150 days for domestic ewes, and 120-240 days for good animals of the specialized dairy breeds.
Milk production for domestic ewes is usually 100-200 pounds per lactation, for dairy breeds, 400-1,100 pounds, and 250-650 pounds for crosses.
Fat content is 6-8%. Protein is 5-7%. These vary with feed and stage of lactation.
A possible future
A glimpse of the potential for sheep milk cheese was offered by a panel of cheesemakers at the 2004 Great Lakes Dairy Sheep Symposium.
Tom Clark of Old Chatham Sheepherding Company in Old Chatham, New York said he produces 500,000 pounds of cheese a year, sells it all, and is just scratching the surface. “Do a better job of marketing and the sky’s the limit.”
Sid Cook, of Carr Valley Cheese, Mauston, Wisconsin, said the potential is “huge,” and he thinks the future is in “American originals” rather than trying to replicate the well-known Old World cheeses. This includes educating consumers about the “art” of cheese.
This fourth-generation cheese maker recently won a top award with a 100-year-old family recipe. “My uncle knew just how much wood to cut to heat the curd.” He doesn’t want to go back to that, but his point was that cheesemaking was, and is, an art.
The big companies, he said, have “dumbed down” cheese. His greatest fear is that when the big corporations see the consumer interest in sheep cheeses they will “go the way of organic vegetables. We could be seeing sheep milk Velveeta.”
Pricing is a problem. Sheep milk sells for $15-$30 per cwt. in places like Armenia and Spain, he said, compared to the $50-$60 in the U.S. If the price paid to the shepherd is too low, the cheesemakers won’t get the milk; but if it’s too high, they won’t be able to sell the cheese.
Steven Read of Shepherd’s Way, Nerstrand, Minnesota, said that in the Minneapolis area “there’s a mark in the sand: $20 a pound, retail. Volume drops off after that.”
However, Sid Cook and Mary Falk of Love Tree Farm, Grantsburg Wisconsin, noted that there is a great difference between cities. Buyers in Chicago won’t bat an eye at $16 a pound, wholesale, while those in Milwaukee will laugh at you.
Distributor markups also vary widely. Some take only 10%, while some expect 25% and even more.
It was generally agreed that sheep milk pricing will become more sophisticated, along the lines of cow milk pricing. In the future milk prices will undoubtedly be based on such factors as protein content rather than sheer volume. Sid Cook pointed out that in spring, he gets 1.5 pounds of cheese from 10 pounds of milk, but by fall that peaks at 1.8 pounds of cheese from the same amount of milk. That’s a significant difference. Component pricing is undoubtedly coming.
This is only one of the factors leading to the conclusion that one of the greatest requirements of future profits, along with marketing, is genetic improvement.
If you find the possibilities of milking sheep interesting, what’s the next step?
Obviously, you’ll want to learn as much as you can. Before you’re finished this will include everything from sheep husbandry in general to milking systems and equipment and possibly cheesemaking as well. Check out the information sources listed at the end of this article for a start.
Steve and Jody Read, Shepherds Way, Nerstrand, MN, milk more than 600 sheep. Jody is the licensed cheesemaker at their state-of-the-art cheese plant, and says a big batch of cheese uses 4,000 lbs. of milk, while 800 lbs. is considered a small batch. The Reads opened a small cheese store on their premises which is open on Saturday mornings and run by one of their young sons.
Visit as many dairy sheep operations as possible. Treated with respect and consideration for their time and experience, most of these people will be pleased to share their knowledge.
Do the paper work. Establish a reasonable enterprise budget based on what you have learned. Determine where you’ll find the sheep and equipment to get started, how you’ll pay for it all, and how you’ll support the operation until it pays its own way.
In this regard, we haven’t met a single dairy shepherd who started selling milk or making cheese according to their original schedule. You should expect unexpected problems and delays!
Above all else, know how you’re going to market your milk!
Most of the people who started milking sheep more than 10 years ago have quit. Those who started more recently have learned a great deal by trial and error.
But those starting now, who do their homework and have adequate capitalization, just might be getting in on the ground floor of one of the most exciting and promising new agricultural enterprises to come along in many years.
Homesteader Jerry Belanger has raised sheep, but his cheeses have been made from goat milk. He is the founder of both COUNTRYSIDE and sheep! magazines, and his books include “Storey’s Guide to Raising Dairy Goats.” He now spends his time gardening, cooking and baking, and raising birds.