Popularity of dairy sheep operations growing in all parts of the country



Contributing writer

WOOSTER, Ohio — When dairy sheep arrived on the agricultural radar screen in the early 1990s, many flocks were located in the eastern part of the U.S. Today, almost half of the 169 dairy sheep operations are commercial operations and can be found in 19 states, according to Yves Berger, sheep researcher with the University of Wisconsin’s Spooner Ag Research Station.

Berger was one of the presenters at the Ohio Sheep Milk and Cheese Initiative Symposium at The Ohio State University Agricultural Technical Institute in Wooster.

The sheep dairies have gained popularity for several reasons, according to Berger. First, they are a good alternative agricultural enterprise for small farmers. Second, the demand for imported cheese made from sheep milk has almost tripled in the past decade.

“Why not keep the value added to sheep milk here in the United States, instead of sending it to Europe,” said Berger.


Berger said shepherds interested in the sheep dairying should consider several things. First, they need to decide what they are going to do with the milk from their sheep. If they are going to operate a commercial dairy, and want to sell milk, they need to find an existing dairy that is looking for milk.

“If you are going to sell milk, how many sheep do you have,” he said. “If you have a small flock, there may not be enough interest from a cheesemaker.”

Sheep milk can be frozen and it does not affect the cheese-making capability of the milk. However, it has to be done properly.

If producers are going to sell their milk, they need to decide if they are creating a principle source of income for their farm or if they are creating a supplemental source of income.

“Sheep dairying is labor intensive,” Berger said. “You need to have the whole family involved.”

Producers also need to look at their forage resources.

“Do you have a sufficient quantity of high quality feed?” Berger asked. “Sheep are a lot more sensitive to forage quality than dairy cows are. Sheep require 17-18 percent protein in their feed. You need to know the quality of your pasture and you may need to consider improving your pastures.”

Breed choice

Producers who are serious about going in to sheep dairying need to invest in dairy-type sheep breeds, according to Berger.

Berger said that Dorsets and Polypays are milky sheep, but they are not dairy breeds.

The difference is that while Dorsets and Polypays give a lot of milk, but they tend to drop off in production, rather than maintaining their production for a longer period. Still, they can provide a source of ewes for crossbreeding to dairy-type rams and allow producers to build their flocks relatively inexpensively.

Currently only two of the four major dairy sheep breeds, the East Friesian and the Lacaune, are found in the U.S.

The East Friesian is the best milk breed in the world, according to Berger. They are docile, easy to milk, produce a lot of milk, produce a good lamb crop — averaging at least 2 lambs per ewe — and work in a crossbreeding program. They do not adapt well to hot, dry weather or hot, humid weather. They are also susceptible to pneumonia.

The Lacaune is less common in the U.S., but they are an excellent way to improve milk production in the flock. They tend to have fewer lambs per ewe, averaging 1.8 lambs per ewe. The Lacaune breed does not have a lot of wool, which is a good trait for dairy sheep.

“You don’t want a lot of wool when you have dairy sheep, particularly around the legs and udder,” Berger said. Two other breeds, Assaf and the fat-tailed Awassi are native to Israel and are not common in the U.S.


Dairy shepherds need to look at how their milking facilities are designed, according to Berger. “Milking should not take more than two hours,” he said. “If milking lasts more than two hours, you start taking shortcuts and that creates problems.”

Berger said it was important to select a system that works for the facility and the number of ewes in the flock.

Management styles also vary by flocks, according to Berger. “There are a lot of different thoughts on the type of management for dairy sheep,” he said.


Some producers choose an intensive style of management with higher costs and a higher level of management, but receiving maximum production yields in return. Under an intensive management style, many producers lamb their ewes in the winter and the lambs are raised on milk replacer.

Other producers choose an extensive style of management, with moderate costs and lower production and may be more appealing to producers interested in raising the value of their milk by processing cheese or other related products.

Under extensive management styles, many producers lamb their ewes in March or April and the lambs are left on the ewes for about 30 days. “You will never milk more than 85 percent of the ewes in your flock at any one time,” he said. “Unfortunately, many dairy producers are not testing their sheep. You need to know what your ewes are producing, so milk testing is important.”

When it comes to size of the operation, Berger noted that medium size operations can be profitable, but producers need to have excellent management skills.

Business plan

Berger suggested that producers establish an enterprise budget for their operation, which will help in designing their business plan. A model can be found at www.cias.wisc.edu/economics/dairy-sheep-enterprise-budget/.


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Freelance writer Susan Mykrantz has been writing for Farm and Dairy since 1989. She is a graduate of the ag college at Ohio State University and also serves as editor of the "Ohio Jersey News." She lives in Wayne County.



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