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Well-Paying Sheep Dairies
Always Have Apt Equipment

By Rosemarie Colombraro

Joe Horkan, North American product manager for DeLaval, Inc. (American headquarters in Kansas City) reminds sheep raisers that sheep are not the same as goats when it comes to some parts of the overall milking system.

“The udder composition and shape of the udder are different with a sheep than with a goat. A sheep’s teat size and shape are different than a goat’s teat, so she requires a different liner and shell combination,” he states.

This sheep milking stall is movable. Photo courtesy of DeLaval, Inc.
This sheep milking stall is movable. Photo courtesy of DeLaval, Inc.

“The pump systems are also set differently. Most sheep systems are set up on 120 or 180 beats per minute (BPM), and a ratio of either 50/50 or 60/40. Most common is 50/50. That is the proper milk setting for sheep, where goats are 90 beats per minute. They are milked at a much slower pace. The speed of extraction of the milk out of the udder is different because the teats are so small-or the canals are much smaller-and you are trying to get that milk out at a much faster rate.”

Horkan’s concern over using goat milking equipment for sheep is for the health of the animal. “The goat milker will work-certainly it would get milk out of the udder. What I would be concerned about is proper udder health. That is, influence on somatic cell counts, the mastitis issues around it, proper milking of the teat, and the teat condition. When you use too low or too high of a vacuum, or the wrong ratios, you are really damaging the teat end. Immediate issues may not be there but there are long-term issues-the longevity of the animal, how susceptible it will be to mastitis, those types of things. We always want to fit the animal with the correct milking equipment.”

Small Scale Milking

For someone just getting started on milking up to 40 ewes, Horkan suggests starting with bucket milkers with a vacuum-driven pulsator and the proper milking clusters. “Traditional old cow milkers, a bucket with a pulsation unit on the top-that work from a vacuum system where you don’t need any electronics or monitor pulsation-those systems are available.

Cow cluster (top) is very different from sheep cluster. Photos courtesy of DeLaval, Inc.
Cow cluster (top) is very different from sheep cluster. Photos courtesy of DeLaval, Inc.

Your main expense is a vacuum source. The DeLaval HP series runs on vacuum. You don’t need to have an electronic source or a master controller like you do with the bigger systems. You don’t have to worry about running wires or about a power source for electronic pulsators, which are in the bigger systems. If you’ve got a vacuum source (which you need anyway to extract the milk) you can find a pulsator that fits on the vacuum. That is the most inexpensive way to do it. You can milk several sheep into one 45-gallon bucket before you fill the bucket.

“Add the correct milking claw and liners and everything for that is going to be very inexpensive,” continues Horkan. “A good vacuum source will run $1,500 to $2,000 for the smallest ones.”

Horkan says serviceability is important in choosing a system. “A lot of people buy used equipment that is not serviced properly and is probably not going to be very efficient for them. They go to an old dairy barn that has been shut down for 20 years and they find a vacuum pump in the corner that’s got oil all over it and it leaks and it’s 10 times more work than it is worth. Even if you get it free, it costs you more to run.

“Some of the newer systems are almost like the systems you see at the dentist’s office-very small and unique. You only need very few CFMs to fill a bucket and to milk properly, but that is your main expense. The smaller pumps we have are going to be around $2,500. It is still much bigger than you need for that but it is the smallest we have available. You can get some very nice electric pumps now that can run on 110 volts, and basically plug into the wall.”

More Ewes-More Dollars

DeLaval recently worked with the Tennessee spa and resort, Blackberry Farm, to set up equipment at their upcoming sheep dairy facility. The farm’s flock is still quite small, but they are in the process of creating several cheeses to offer their guests, and chores such as milking, lambing and cheese making will eventually be incorporated into guest activity offerings. “They have made a decision that they want to have a very nice modern dairy facility,” says Horkan. “The single 24 rapid-exit stalls would hold 24 animals at a time. It has 12 milking units so they are going to switch units between two animals. The animals load on sequence, so when the animal enters it has to go to a certain position and they have to load in order. The ID system works so you always know where the animal is in the milking string. The MM25 SG milk meter is specific to sheep, and Blackberry farm will be using the S-TF100 sheep claw. There is an LVP vacuum pump, which runs around $4,500.”

For proper management of the flock, Blackberry Farm will be using the metered milk system that will give flow rates of the animals and also the pounds of milk per milking. At present, the farm will collect data manually, but future plans will include an automatic ID system. “The animal will be automatically identified through the use of ear tags, boluses or leg bands as it enters the milking system. That system would be downloadable to a herd management software package that would come along with it,” says Horkan. “So your milk weights would all be recorded, your ID would be recorded and then there’d be different files in there where a dairyman could keep track of breeding results, heritage-all types of basic animal management issues. That would all be part of the software package. That is our next step at Blackberry Farm.”

Cleaning Up

Sanitizing methods follow stringent guidelines, says Horkan. The dairyman cleans and preps the udder with a pre-dip or wash. From one unit to the other, there is no cleaning of the system. But every milking session, the system is cleaned with sanitized acid and alkaline washes using an automatic washing system. Information is included with the product.

Blackberry Farm in Tennessee is a resort that will incorporate sheep milking, lambing and cheesemaking into guest activity offerings.
Blackberry Farm in Tennessee is a resort that will incorporate sheep milking, lambing and cheesemaking into guest activity offerings.

“The system has to be cleaned twice every 24 hours, with the correct equipment,” explains Horkan. “Every milking system that we make has to meet FDA standards, it has to meet the Pasteurized Milk Ordinance (PMO), which dictates how milk is harvested and shipped. We also have to meet National Mastitis Council (NMC) standards with every system we install, like Blackberry Farms.”

Horkan’s Advice

To those who are thinking of starting with dairy sheep, Horkan offers some advice. “Make a decision if this is a business or a hobby. Your numbers need to justify the cost of what you are doing. With 200 to 250 animals, there is a definite payback over a 5 or 6-year investment time. With a single 12 system, milking 250 sheep, there is a possibility you could run a fairly good business and get some return on that, and pay it off within a 5 year period. You could make a profit and look at it from a real business standpoint. If you can make an investment of $35,000 to $40,000 and go to 250 animals, can you pencil this out into a profit-making thing? That’s what we work with a lot of people on-when they want to take that next step. We try to help them find a comfort level on their investment.”

An important task, says Horkan, is to find a market for your product. “Is there a specialty cheese market? Is there a processor? They are popping up all over,” says Horkan. “We just heard of one on the Wisconsin-Minnesota border. They are starting to buy sheep milk. There is a pretty good influence in Washington State. If you decide to go to a commercial type setup, where is the market and who can process the milk? That is the first thing to find.”

The magic number, for Horkan, is 250 head of ewes. “I’m very honest with people when they call and they say they want to milk 50 ewes. I say, you’re still in a hobby mode. There is not going to be enough income generated there, not enough volume for someone to come and pick your milk up, or to travel any distance to buy your product. If you are lawyers and doctors and just want to do this for the fun of it, sure. But if you are really trying to make it a commercial business, then first see if it is viable.”

For more information on DeLaval systems, contact DeLaval Inc., 11100 N. Congress Avenue, Kansas City, Missouri. 64153 or go to www.delaval-us.com

Blackberry Farm is a top-rated spa and resort in Walland, Tennessee. Go to www.blackberryfarm.com or call 888-437-4368 for lodging information.

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