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Milk Sheep For Profit

Dairy Sheep Symposium Shows & Tells How

By JD Belanger

Founder Of sheep!

Wisconsin, home to 14,000 dairy cow herds, is also one of the leading states in sheep milk production. Not that anyone gets very excited about that yet. In this case, “leading” means 11 licensed dairies.

What’s exciting is that the potential for milking sheep is virtually unlimited. The U.S. imports an estimated 72,000,000 pounds of sheep milk cheese a year, and that tonnage has been growing. Domestic production is about 450,000 pounds. That leaves an awful lot of room for growth.

But for now, milking sheep is a lonely occupation. It’s hard to find information and advice, or even just “someone to talk to.”

Established and prospective sheep dairy operators come from all over the U.S. and several foreign countries to the Great Lakes Dairy Sheep Symposium.
Established and prospective sheep dairy operators come from all over the U.S. and several foreign countries to the Great Lakes Dairy Sheep Symposium.

One exception is at the Great Lakes Dairy Sheep Symposium, where information flourishes and camaraderie abounds.

The 12th annual meeting, presented by the Dairy Sheep Association of North America (DSANA), was held in November 2006 in La Crosse, Wisconsin. Nearly 100 participants from Vermont to Oregon, Canada to Mexico, from France and New Zealand, gathered near the banks of the Mississippi River to learn, teach, and simply enjoy talking about dairy sheep with kindred spirits.

There was a notable difference between this gathering and those of “normal” shepherds. Sheep are sheep of course, and dairy sheep farming involves lambing, wool, meat, predators, and all the other aspects of ovine husbandry. But instead of concentrating on such topics, it was much more common to hear references to milking systems, somatic cell counts, and making cheese and yogurt. This is what brings these people together every year, alternating between the Midwest and the Northeast (Vermont in 2005, Ontario in 2007), the areas of the most intense dairy sheep activity in North America.

As in past years, the highlight of the symposium came on Day Three. Most farm folks are not accustomed to sitting on hard chairs in a dimly-lit meeting room for two days straight and they welcome the opportunity to visit an actual working sheep dairy. (To make it more interesting, it was sunny and near 70° at the start of the conference, but there were 2-1/2 inches of snow on the ground for the farm tours.)

Seeing and talking about two sheep farms, plus an award-winning cheese factory, provided a welcome break and a fitting conclusion to an inspiring experience.

Science, Practical Advice, And Entertainment Too

The backbone of any conference, of course, is the presentation of information by experts, and this one was no exception.

Some covered rather advanced scientific research.

Claire M. Mikolayunas, Ph. D. Research Assistant at the University of Wisconsin, addressed “Effect of Prepartum Photoperiod on Prolactin and Milk Production of Dairy Ewes.”

Sheep dairy equipment made in Greece being demonstrated to sheep farmers from Mexico in La Crosse, Wisconsin USA. (The next day all this was under 2-1/2 inches of snow.)
Sheep dairy equipment made in Greece being demonstrated to sheep farmers from Mexico in La Crosse, Wisconsin USA. (The next day all this was under 2-1/2 inches of snow.)

Gilles Lagriffoul came from Toulouse, France, to present research on somatic cell counts (SCC) in sheep milk. (Somatic cells are body cells, including white blood cells, which increase in response to bacteria such as Staphylococcus aureus, a cause of mastitis. SCC is therefore one indicator of the quality of milk and very important to milk producers whether cow, goat or sheep.)

Much of the science also contained everyday practical advice.

Don Bliss, Parasitologist at Mid-America Ag Research, Verona, Wis., discussed “Strategic Control of Gastro-Intestinal Parasites in Sheep.”

(Excerpt:) Internal parasites, even in low numbers, cause considerable economic loss from reduced milk production, reduced breeding efficiency, reduced weight gains, reduced feed efficiency, reduced carcass quality, reduced hair or wool quality, and reduced immune status of the infected animals to fight off other disease conditions such as coccidiosis. . . Parasites can be controlled with strategic deworming which includes preventing worm egg shedding on pastures for the first three months of grazing.

Veterinarian and sheep producer Holly Neaton of Watertown, Minn. presented “Ovine Progressive Pneumonia and Caseous Lymphadenitis-You Can Raise Sheep Without Them.”

(Excerpt:) OPP is very prevalent, but flock owners and vets know little about it. Many accept the signs of the disease-mainly chronic pneumonia, weight loss, hard udders and arthritis-as normal. Would they be amazed at how productive their flocks would be without the virus?

On a somewhat lighter level, Gilles Lagriffoul also presented a travelogue on “Dairy Sheep Production and Cheese Making in the French Pyrenees,” and Harold Gonyou, Animal Behaviorist at the University of Saskatchewan, Canada, had some stories on “Sheep Behavior and Its Use in Sheep Management” that could make good programming for cable tv.

Cheese curing at Carr Valley.
Cheese curing at Carr Valley.

Jody Padgham of Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service discussed the growing market for organic foods, including dairy, and what’s involved in becoming certified under the recently-enacted USDA regulations for organic products.

Healthy, Fancy & Farm – Friendly Foods

The Proceedings from the symposium would more than fill this magazine, and much of it would mean little to the average meat and wool producer. There were some exceptions.

For example, interest in organic foods has increased so rapidly that articles about it are commonplace in the mainstream press. With such giants as General Mills and Dean Foods muscling in, organic food products can be found in virtually all supermarkets today. Organic foods have seen a 20% annual growth rate for the past 15 years. This has reached 24% for dairy products.

According to Jody Padgham, thousands of new consumers are buying organic products each week, as education about the “organic difference” spreads. In addition to the marketing opportunities for farmers, she notes that producing organically is good for you, your animals and the land.

“In an article titled Emerging Top Food Trends in the U.S. and Abroad, the Institute of Food Technologists names ‘inherently healthy, fancy and farm-friendly’ among the top five qualities consumers will be seeking in the near future,” she said “What a perfect description of organically produced sheep dairy products!” This obviously applies to nondairy products as well.

To sell organic meat (lamb), the mother must be treated organically (feed, pasture, health, etc.) for the last third of gestation (50 days). Mothers may not be taken in and out of organic production. Lambs must be managed organically. Any animal not born of an organically managed mother may never be sold as organic meat.

This is a bare bones outline: the details are much more complicated. And the requirements for organic milk production are even more stringent. This includes organic management for one year before the sale of organic milk.

Forty-pound bags of frozen sheep milk in the walk-in freezer at Hidden Springs.
Forty-pound bags of frozen sheep milk in the walk-in freezer at Hidden Springs.

Then, all of this must be certified by a third party organization accredited by the USDA. (Since October 2002 organic production has been governed by a 46-page law describing what is and is not allowed, regulated by the USDA.) The process is not for those who abhor record-keeping and paperwork.

Cheesemaking takes it further. Any additional agricultural products used (such as dill or basil) must also be certified organic. Cultures and coagulants must be non-GMO (Genetically Modified Organisms). Pest control must be mechanical.

Many of us can recall a time when “organic” meant little more than “natural”-food produced without chemical fertilizers and pesticides, antibiotics, etc. Today, government involvement makes it a lot more complicated.

Is There Any Money In Sheep Dairying?

One presentation was more a proposal than a report. And it might have been the one with the largest potential impact on the industry.

Tom Kieffer and Dan Guertin of the Wisconsin Sheep Dairy Cooperative spoke about “Sheep Dairy Farm Income Analysis-Cost of Milk Production.”

Kieffer, who with his wife Laurel runs Dream Valley Farm in Strum, Wisconsin, and Guertin, who operates Shepherd’s Pride Farm in Stillwater, Minnesota with his wife Alice, noted that although milk production has increased, the number of dairy sheep farms has remained relatively static. The bottom line is there aren’t enough people making enough money milking sheep. The industry needs to reach a critical mass, they said.

The co-op started in 1996 with 26 farms, only six of which were actually milking sheep. Of the original 26 only six are still actively milking members (although three others became independent farmstead operations making their own sheep milk products).

In the past 10 years 20 additional individuals tried, or seriously investigated, sheep dairying. Fourteen of them have given up.

All the co-op member farms are paid the same for their milk, yet some are able to cash flow their operations and others aren’t. Why?

Putting it another way, one of the primary questions prospective sheep milkers ask is, “How much money can I expect to make?” Currently, there are no good answers.

Guertin and Kieffer proposed a way to address these problems.

Their plan involved a form of “simplified” record-keeping that would segregate the various costs in a typical dairy sheep operation into “standardized” categories, and then examine each of the categories related to the direct cost of milk production. “Clearly, if the farm is being paid $0.55/lb. of milk but is spending $0.60/lb to produce the milk, the farm will not be viable over the long term.”

If enough current members participate in the proposed program, it will be possible for a variety of farms with different situations to compare their direct cost of production against other farms, they said.

Left: Gilles Lagriffoul from Toulouse, France. Center: Buck Wheeler, inventor of the Udderly EZ Milker. Right: Dave Thomas, professor of sheep genetics/management and Extension Sheep Specialist, University of Wisconsin.
Left: Gilles Lagriffoul from Toulouse, France. Center: Buck Wheeler, inventor of the Udderly EZ MilkerTM. Right: Dave Thomas, professor of sheep genetics/management and Extension Sheep Specialist, University of Wisconsin.

“By benchmarking the average and range of costs in each of these categories, farmers will be able to determine how they compare to others in the industry. If, by using the standardized calculation, a farm determines that its cost of production is significantly higher than other farms, that farm will be able to compare its costs across the various categories with other farms to determine in which category (or categories) their costs are out of line. By being able to identify problem areas, the farm can concentrate on different ways to bring these costs down.

“Conversely, if a farm finds its overall cost of production is at the lower end of the scale, it can help to establish ‘best practices’ in the sheep dairy industry that other sheep dairy farms can follow to be more successful.”

The two men explained in some detail the types of expenses to be tracked, expense categories, and record-keeping options. They also solicited feedback and comments before finalizing the standardized approach in late December 2006.

Statistically Speaking. . .

Statistics already available are limited, but revealing. Bob Battaglia and Audra Hubbell, Wisconsin Agricultural Statistics Service, discussed some of the findings from a survey conducted in September 2006.

Wisconsin has 11 licensed sheep dairies milking a total of 2,250 ewes. Last year they produced 829,300 pounds of milk, an average of 369 pounds/ewe. Milk sold for an average of $55.50/cwt.

(These numbers are far different for goat milk. The state has 165 licensed goat dairies milking 19,500 does producing an average of 1,416 pounds/doe, and goat milk sold for an average of $27.90/cwt. To continue the comparison, the September price for cow milk in Wisconsin was $13.50.)

About 60% of the sheep milkers have 6+ years of experience. None of them plan on quitting in the next five years (compared to 6% of the goat milkers who expect to hang up their milk pails), and 56% plan to increase their flock size (compared to 79% of the goat operations).

A panel discussion centering on marketing was both interesting and informative. Kim Curtis makes lotion and soap from sheep milk in Anselmo, Nebraska. Jodi Ohlsen Read is an artisan cheesemaker in Nerstrand, Minnesota. And Javier Pérez Rocha Malcher makes cheese from 350 ewes on pasture year-around in Central Mexico. Three people, three different situations, and three different approaches to marketing, provided plenty of food for thought to top off an already fulfilling seminar.

Field Trip:
Two Farms & Cheese Plant;
Box Lunch & Wine/Cheese Tasting

On Saturday, the final day of the conference, attendees filed onto two yellow school buses clutching their Styrofoam-boxed lunches. The roads were cleared, but the previous day’s snow still punctuated the dark evergreens on the steep Mississippi bluffs and coulees, while those who came dressed for a Wisconsin winter were no longer overheated.

Farm visits were scheduled for two neighbors in the Driftless Area-an unusual region that was completely surrounded by glaciers during the Ice Age, but was not glaciated itself. The result is a picturesque hilly landscape that’s unsuited to huge fields of corn and soybeans, but ideal for grazing.

Driving up a winding narrow valley road the two buses parted. Ours went to the Jensen farm atop a high ridge, from where we could see the other bus, and the Miller farm, on a similar ridge about half a mile away.

Dean and Brenda Jensen have accomplished a great deal in the four years they have lived at Hidden Springs Farm and Creamery. While the creamery-the cheese plant and a “cave” for aging the cheese-are still under construction, the farm is fully operational, milking 115 Lacaune and East Fresian dairy sheep.

This is an Amish community and, while not Amish themselves, the Jensens associate closely with their neighbors. Dean, a psychologist, serves as a community counselor and clinical therapist. They use Percheron draft horses instead of tractors.

However, their dairy operation is strictly Grade A, utilizing relatively inexpensive equipment from former cow dairies. With automated feeders and eight milkers in a double-14 parlor, one person can milk 100 ewes per hour.

The milk is delivered to a bulk tank via pipeline. Every two days it’s transferred to bags, each bag holding 40 lbs., and moved to the 10,000 lb. capacity freezer. The frozen bags are then trucked to the Wisconsin Sheep Dairy Cooperative at a current price of $57/cwt.

However, their goal is to make and market their own cheese. To this end, Brenda left her management position in the corporate world to become a licensed cheesemaker, marketer, shepherd and gardener.

She currently makes a fresh, soft cheese named “Driftless.” But a 28′ x 40′ cheese house is now under construction, along with an underground “cave,” both of which will greatly expand the cheesemaking possibilities.

An Amish Farmstead

Part of the tour group was given the option of traveling to the next stop by hay wagon, taking a “shortcut” through the fields. But the wet snow balled up on the iron wheels of the wagon, and despite the best efforts of the two massive Belgian draft horses the trip was rerouted to the road. (Which was little better, as the poor beasts struggled against the wagon going down into the valley, and then slipped and struggled again going back up on the other side. Many of the passengers walked the last part of the way to the farm of John Henry and Mary Miller.)

The home-made boy-operated Amish rotary platform enables the Millers to hand-milk 35 sheep in about 35 minutes.
The home-made boy-operated Amish rotary platform enables the Millers to hand-milk 35 sheep in about 35 minutes.

This young Amish couple started milking cows on a rented farm in 1994. They bought the farm in 1997, and in 2004 they bought 50 Polypay ewe lambs. “We crossed them with an East Friesian ram,” John said. “The first two years, we just raised lambs, and I milked sheep for my neighbor, Dean Jensen. We also raised lambs for him.”

In March of 2006 they started milking their own sheep. Being Amish, they do not have electricity, and therefore milk by hand. Without electricity they cannot cool their milk to a low enough temperature quickly enough to produce Grade A milk. Grade B milk is perfectly acceptable for cheesemaking, but cannot be handled in interstate commerce, and most of the Wisconsin Sheep Dairy Cooperative milk goes out of state. (Dean Jensen says that sometimes the Millers have a lower somatic cell count than his Grade A dairy across the coulee.)

[Editor’s Note: A representative of one dairy equipment supplier told sheep! that transporting Grade B milk across state lines may be legal. The company’s contact info is Kleen-Flo Small Dairy Equipment, 10180 S 100 E, Lynn, IN 47355 Phone: 765-874-1292; E-mail: kleenflo@verizon.net]

John, Mary and three of their young sons (eldest: 8) milk 35 sheep in about 35 minutes. The energetic young boys (who run three miles to school, their father said) gave us a demonstration but their religion did not allow us to take photographs with people in them.

Key to the system is a homemade circular rotating platform, operated entirely by boy-power. As sheep enter the milking parlor one-by-one they immediately go for the grain, also doled out by boy-power. The stanchion is locked, the platform rotated, and the next ewe comes in. The platform holds eight animals.

Each ewe is milked, and when her section of the platform is rotated to the exit door next to the entry, the stanchion opens automatically and the sheep goes back to the pens. Another 1/8th turn, and a new ewe joins the carousel.

The milk is poured into a strainer in a milk can, which is then chilled in cold water in a concrete tank in the milk house.

The Millers were originally raising lambs instead of milking because of their inability to produce Grade A, and consequent lack of a market. A health food co-op in Illinois wanted to buy raw milk from them, which was legally impossible.

The impossibility had a simple solution. The co-op bought the sheep. “I wasn’t sure I wanted to sell. I wondered, are they going to take the sheep to Chicago?” John Henry joked.

These Belgians provided transportation.
These Belgians provided transportation.

But it has worked out fine for all concerned. The Millers separate the milk with a hand-cranked cream separator (boy-powered, again) and make butter. Whole milk is saved the last few days before pickup.

Their goal is to milk 100 ewes next year. But already, “As far as I am aware of, we are the first commercial hand-milked sheep dairy in the U.S.,” Miller said.

Asked whether others in the Amish community are interested in dairy sheep, John pondered for a moment, and then said, “They’re. . . looking around the corner.” If he and Mary are successful, sheep dairying could become a common enterprise among these resourceful people.

In addition to the sheep, and the 45 acres of tillable land worked with horses (hay, corn, and barley and peas for silage), the Millers make bent hickory furniture including beautiful rocking chairs and tables.

Last Stop: An Award–Winning Cheese Factory

An hour later the tour group arrived in the small city of Mauston, in central Wisconsin, home of Carr Valley Cheese.

The four vats in this room are large enough to process 150,000 pounds of milk a day...but for about a hundred dairy sheep people visiting Carr Valley Cheese, it was a tight fit.
The four vats in this room are large enough to process 150,000 pounds of milk a day…but for about a hundred dairy sheep people visiting Carr Valley Cheese, it was a tight fit.

Our host was Sid Cook, a Wisconsin Master Cheesemaker and fourth generation of a family that has been making cheese for 116 years. Master Cheesemakers are an exclusive club, requiring participation in a 15-year program of apprenticeship and advanced training. Carr Valley has won more than 120 top awards in national and international competitions in just the past five years, many with Sid’s one-of-a-kind American originals. Carr Valley is the largest processor of sheep milk in Wisconsin, in addition to processing cow and goat milk. The sheep milk is purchased from the Wisconsin Sheep Dairy Cooperative.

Carr Valley processes 150,000 pounds of milk a day-cow, goat and sheep-in four vats holding 18,000 pounds each. Sheep milk accounts for less than 450,000 pounds a year, but it’s made into some of the most expensive cheeses. Several aged varieties retail for $16 a pound.

After a tour of the plant visitors gathered in a room filled with cheese molds and other equipment, and tables laden with crackers, wine and cheeses: Ba Ba Blue, cave-aged Marisa, River Bend, Virgin Pine Native Blue. . . If three days of inspiring talks didn’t provide enough incentive for these sheep farmers, the aromas, the mouth-feel and the exquisite flavors of sheep milk cheeses should have clinched it.

Yes, the world definitely needs more dairy sheep!

Resources and Contacts

Dairy Sheep Association of North America: www.dsana.org/index.php
Wisconsin Dairy Sheep Cooperative: www.sheepmilk.biz/

Artisan cheeses, Shepherd’s Way Farms: farmfriends@earthlink.net
Carr Valley Cheese: www.carrvalleycheese.com
Hidden Springs Farm and Creamery: www.hiddenspring’screamery.com
Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service: www.mosesorganic.org
Soaps and lotions, etc.: www.shepherdsdairy.com

Did You Know?

While there are now about 150 dairy sheep producers in North America and their numbers and production are growing, they don’t even come close to satisfying America’s appetite for sheep milk cheeses.

  • The U. S. imports more than 72 million pounds of sheep milk cheese every year, while producing less than half-a-million pounds.
  • Imports include such familiar names as Roquefort (France), Pecorino Romano (Italy), Manchego (Spain) and Feta (Greece). However, U. S. sheep milk cheeses have recently won several national and international awards in competition with cow, goat, and other sheep milk cheeses.
  • Producers receive $55-$70 per cwt for sheep milk.
  • Sheep milk yields 18%-25% cheese, compared to 9-10% for cow and goat milk.
  • While any female sheep can produce milk, the preferred dairy breeds in North America are the East Friesian and Lacaune.
  • The Wisconsin Sheep Dairy Cooperative has increased shipments 20-fold in the past 11 years-from 45,000 lbs. in 1996 to 1,000,000 lbs. in 2006.
  • Old Chatham Sheepherding Co. in New York is the largest dairy sheep producer in North America, milking 800-1,000 ewes.

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