An Introduction to Sheep Dairying

Dairy sheep? Seriously?

Yes! There are many reasons some adventurous homesteaders and agripreneurs have turned to sheep dairying. Believe it or not, one is the flavor. Sheep milk has a high rate of acceptance among those who have tasted it.

And then there are the health benefits. According to various dairy sheep organizations, sheep milk boasts the following claims:

  • More protein than cow’s milk.
  • Small fat globules, which are easy to digest.
  • Higher levels of CLA than cow’s or goat’s milk.
  • Higher levels calcium, phosphorus, potassium, magnesium, zinc, and vitamins A, B12, and E than cow’s milk.

Sheep milk is also amazingly versatile. It can be enjoyed as a beverage, but it is also suitable for cheese, yogurt, kefir, and ice cream. Can’t process it all at once? No problem—sheep milk is naturally homogenized and can be kept in the freezer until you are ready to work with it.

Who Buys Sheep Milk?

It is rather ironic that so few Americans use sheep milk today, given the fact that sheep dairying has been practiced in nearly every part of the world since the most ancient times. Very few people indeed drink sheep milk as a beverage in our country.

A more palatable way of presenting sheep milk to the American public is in the form of artisan cheese, popular with foodies, retailers, and restaurants alike. The United States, while it produces very little sheep cheese, is a major importer of this product. Some of the sheep cheeses popular in our country may sound familiar to you:

  • Feta.
  • Ricotta.
  • Roquefort.
  • Pecorino romano.

Some sheep farmers prefer to sell their milk to cheese processors rather than oversee the cheesemaking process. Finding a processor in your area can be a challenge, however, because a large-scale processor must be assured the milk of at least 750 ewes to be profitable. You may need to either find a local artisan to work with or learn how to make sheep cheese yourself.

The Best Breeds For Sheep Dairying

The sheep dairying industry is not as well developed in the United States as it is in Europe. In many European countries, specialized dairy breeds of sheep have been selected over time for production. In the United States, most new dairymen will have to do this selection themselves unless they are fortunate enough to live where imported populations of specialized breeds have been established. This can make starting a profitable dairy flock difficult and time-consuming. Upgrading a meat flock into a dairy flock may be necessary.

One mark of a good dairy breed is its ability to produce enough milk to sustainably nurse twins and triplets. Another factor is the ewe’s ability to breed back quickly, even in the winter.

Breeds that have come to the surface in U.S. sheep dairying include:

  • Assaf (specialized).
  • Awassi (specialized).
  • Dorset.
  • East Friesian (specialized).
  • Finnsheep.
  • Icelandic.
  • Katahdin.
  • Lacaune (specialized).
  • Polypay.

Hybrid vigor gives crossbred ewes an advantage over purebred ewes in health, so a combination of these breeds is often advantageous for dairying with sheep. Crossbreeding is also a reliable way to increase the milk production of a meat-breed flock.

Special Considerations of Dairying With Sheep

Raising sheep for dairy purposes requires different management than is necessary for raising sheep for meat or wool. Heavy milk production places tremendous demands on the metabolism and reproductive system of the ewe. In fact, it is not always possible to meet the energy needs of specialized dairy sheep on forage alone. Extra care must be given to proper sanitation and nutrition to avoid health problems such as these:

  • Mastitis.
  • Ketosis.
  • Milk fever.

Tail docking is also recommended to ensure clean dairying practices.

When to separate the lambs from the ewes is an important consideration. In most countries, the lambs are separated from their mothers about 24 hours after birth and are then raised on milk replacer. While this practice maximizes the amount of milk available for processing and sale, it does result in a less vigorous lamb, a real downside in America where a major part of the income of a sheep dairy may come from selling lambs to ethnic markets for meat. For this reason, it may be desirable in many operations to wean the lambs at 30 days of age. The milk production can be increased in this system after the first week by keeping the lambs in separate quarters at night so that the ewes can be milked in the morning.

Are Dairy Sheep Right For You?

Sheep dairying is not exactly an easy enterprise to start. Building a flock can be difficult, and special equipment is required. However, if you love cheesemaking and have access to upscale markets interested in artisan cheese, sheep dairying may be a good fit for you.

Note that many sheep dairies do not rely solely on milk or cheese for their profits—lamb and wool are two additional streams of income that can make this business a success.