Sheep have been raised for milk for thousands of years and were milked before cows. The world’s commercial dairy sheep industry is concentrated in Europe and the countries on or near the Mediterranean Sea. Sheep dairying is growing in New Zealand. The dairy sheep industry is still in its infancy in the United States. There are only about 200 dairy sheep farms in the U.S. They are found mostly in New England and the Upper Midwest. There are several large commercial sheep dairies in New York and California. Each year, the Dairy Sheep Association of North America holds a conference.
In the United States, dairy ewes are managed in different ways. On some farms, ewes are not milked until their lambs have been weaned at 30 to 60 days of age. Another system allows lambs to suckle their lambs for 8 to 12 hours per day, after which time they are separated for the night and the ewes are milked the following morning. After the lambs are weaned at 28 to 30 days, the ewes are milked twice per day. Maximum milk yield is obtained when the lambs are removed from their dams within 24 hours of birth and raised on artificial milk replacer, as is common in cow and goat dairies.
The biggest challenge for anyone embarking on dairy sheep farming is finding a secure and consistent outlet for the milk. Paul and Laura Mardell established a flock of Friesland milkers on their 31ha county council holding near Coventry, three years ago, but it took them 12 months to secure a contract. They took the decision to milk sheep because the potential profit margin was attractive and the set-up costs were affordable for a business in its infancy.
Exploiting milk production from grass is giving Irish dairy farmers Barry and Lorraine Cahalan a cost of production advantage over the housed sheep systems more common in the UK. The couple, who milk 200 Frieslands in Terryglass, County Tipperary, are paid €1.40/litre (£1.25/litre) for milk surplus to their requirements for their own cheese-making business. But cost of production is kept at 80 cents/litre (71p/litre) by producing as much milk as they can from pasture.
Sheep milk is highly nutritious, richer in vitamins A, B, and E, calcium, phosphorus, potassium, and magnesium than cow’s milk. It contains a higher proportion of short- and medium-chain fatty acids, which have recognized health benefits. For example, short-chain fatty acids have little effect on cholesterol levels in people. They make milk easier to digest. According to a German researcher, sheep milk has more conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) than the milk from pigs, horses, goats, cattle, and humans. CLA is a cancer-fighting, fat-reducing fat. The fat globules in sheep milk are smaller than the fat globules in cow’s milk, making sheep milk more easily digested.