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You do what to your sheep?!” Aix of shock, amusement and curiosity often greets shepherds who milk sheep. Most people think that’s as quaint as milking reindeer or water buffalo: it just isn’t done in a modern, civilized country!

The Symposium featured farm tours and international experts speaking on-site.
The Symposium featured farm tours and international experts speaking on-site.

At the same time however, more consumers are becoming familiar with, and fond of, specialty and artisan cheeses, many of them made from sheep milk. Nearly all are imported: some 72 million pounds, last year. That’s half of the world trade. By most estimates, current domestic production is well under one million pounds.

That imported cheese is equivalent to 360 million pounds of milk. And that in turn means at least 600,000 good quality dairy sheep. North America has an estimated 5,120.

Add it all up and you’ll see why sheep dairying is one of the most exciting and promising fields in North American agriculture today.

The Best Place in America to Learn About Dairy Sheep

This is the backdrop against which participants in the 10th Annual Great Lakes Dairy Sheep Symposium met in early November, 2004, in Hudson, Wisconsin. They numbered less than a hundred, and roughly half of those were not producers, but people looking for more information before starting their own sheep dairies.

The milking process at the Shepherd's Way Farm, owned by Steven & Jody Read, Nerstrand, Minnesota.
The milking process at the Shepherd’s Way Farm, owned by Steven & Jody Read, Nerstrand, Minnesota.

They came to the right place. The other half represented just about all of the sheep milk output in North America, and they were able and willing to share their ideas and experiences with newcomers. (A survey conducted by the Dairy Sheep Association of North America [DSNA] and the Univ. of Wisconsin estimates that there are 72 commercial producers in the U.S. and Canada milking 5,120 sheep.) The experiences, concerns, and enthusiasm of these pioneers paint a good picture of the fledgling North American dairy sheep industry.

Along with the profit potential, the “lifestyle” value was apparent among most of the symposium participants. This includes not only independence and country living, but the nurture of small, family farms. (The median milking flock numbers 100 ewes.) Many enterprises are vertically integrated, with the farm family not only raising and milking the sheep, but also making and marketing the cheese and other products, often directly to the consumer.

Going Beyond the Basics

Lifestyle values, however, were for the most part assumed, as was a basic knowledge of the breeding-feeding-health aspects of general sheep management. Seminar topics swept past the platitudes and basic advice for beginners to deal with the scientific and technical aspects of dairying. Some examples:

Dr. Dave Thomas, UW-Madison & Yves Berger, UW Spooner Ag Research at the awards banquet.
Dr. Dave Thomas, UW-Madison & Yves Berger, UW Spooner Ag Research at the awards banquet.
  • Pierre Billon, from France, addressed the pros and cons of different milking units, settings of vacuum, pulsation rates, and pipeline systems.
  • Yves Berger, another Frenchman, now at the University of Wisconsin Spooner Ag Research Station which has a large flock of milking sheep, spoke about testing, calculation of yields, and adjustment factors.
  • Dr. Maristela Rovai, a native of Brazil who once worked at the University of Wisconsin and is now with Technical University in Munich, Germany, talked about udder morphology and its effects on milk production and ease of milking.

There were sessions on taxes (Is your farm a business or a hobby?); the effect of feedstuff on milk flavor; residue in milk after use of health treatments; and cultures for specialty cheese production, among others.

People currently raising sheep for meat and wool who might be interested in adding milk to their sales will certainly want and have to delve into these topics and add dairy science to their bag of shepherd’s skills. But with limited space in a magazine devoted to the entire sheep industry, we’ll have to settle for some of the highlights from this international gathering of sheep people.

A Little Background

Sheep have been milked, and cheese has been made from that milk, since ancient times in parts of the Middle East and Europe, but only in the past 25 years or so in the U.S. and Canada. (When sheep! was founded in 1980 milking sheep appealed mainly to hippies hand milking a few Dorsets and making a couple of pounds of cheese, with much more art than science.)

During the farm tours, Pierre Billon discussed milking equipment options and particulars at the Dan Guertin/Alice Hendriksen Dairy Farm near Stillwater, Minnesota.
During the farm tours, Pierre Billon discussed milking equipment options and particulars at the Dan Guertin/Alice Hendriksen Dairy Farm near Stillwater, Minnesota.

Pierre Billon of the Institut de l’Elevage, Le Rheu, France, pointed out that most general technology has been moving across the Atlantic from west to east. In the case of dairy sheep however, it’s moving from east to west. France, for example, has almost one million ewes in production, compared to our 5,000, and generations of experience compared to our few years.

North American lamb and wool producers can be excused if they’re skeptical about producing sheep milk on a commercial scale, or if they have never heard of the dairy breeds of sheep. Indeed, less than 25 years ago most of the sheep milked in the U.S. (not many!) were Dorsets or Polypays. A decent ewe of those breeds produced 100 to 200 pounds of milk during a lactation of perhaps 90 days.

Today, breeds such as East Friesian (Germany), Lacaune (France) Sarda (Italy), Chios (Greece), British Milksheep (U.K.) and Awassi and Assaf (Israel) produce from 400 to 1,100 pounds of milk a year.

The most common and productive dairy sheep in North America have some East Friesian blood, with Lacaune a distant second. Both were imported only in the last 10 years, and in extremely limited numbers. (There is only one Lacaune breeder in North America-in Canada.) New imports of any breed, including embryos and sperm, are next to impossible under current regulations, exacerbated by the mad cow situation. Even so, North American production records of crossbreds with some dairy blood are now commonly between 250 and 650 pounds.

Genetic improvement is a major goal. At the Spooner Ag Research Station early indications are that a cross of 3/4 East Friesian and 1/4 Lacaune will be the best producers, according to Dr. David Thomas, UW-Madison. This includes the finding that East Friesians produce 20 more lambs per 100 ewes per year than pure Lacaunes, an important economic consideration since dairy sheep also produce market lambs and wool. Paul Haskins, a producer in River Falls, Wisconsin, is experimenting with introducing Icelandic genes to improve udder morphology. But generally speaking, breed improvement has a long way to go in North America.

The Haskins family's flock has East Friesian, Suffolk, Icelandic and Lacaune breeding-their goal is heavy-milking hybrid ewes that produce high quality market lambs when bred to a terminal sire.
The Haskins family’s flock has East Friesian, Suffolk, Icelandic and Lacaune breeding-their goal is heavy-milking hybrid ewes that produce high quality market lambs when bred to a terminal sire.

The Milking Process

The hand milking of 25 years ago gave way to machine milking with buckets. Today, pipeline systems are the norm.

But the prospective producer still has to choose between raised milking stands, where the sheep climb a ramp to a platform, and pits, where the sheep are at ground level and the milkers work three feet, more or less, below ground level. Between high lines (where the milk is pumped to an overhead pipeline) and low lines. Each system requires different milking machine pressures. Some milk rooms have six stanchions in a row, some 12 or even 24, and many have rows of stanchions on either side of the pit with two or even three milkers working at once.

Everyone seems to have a different opinion about all of these options-and many others.

About The Milk

Sheep milk has what producers smilingly call “the unfair advantage.” Unlike cow or goat milk, it can be frozen for up to a year with no loss in cheese making quality. (Fluid milk, however, is used for yogurt, another popular sheep milk product.) For many producers with a relatively small output and no nearby processor, freezing the milk is an ideal solution.

The walk-in milk freezer built by Paul Haskins at Swedish Mission Farm.
The walk-in milk freezer built by Paul Haskins at Swedish Mission Farm.

The Wisconsin Sheep Dairy Cooperative requires milk to be cooled to below 40?F within two hours, and frozen in 5-gallon plastic milk bags (40 pounds per bag) to -10? within 12 hours.

Freezing helps processors even out the seasonal availability of the milk, but it’s more costly and labor-intensive for both farmer and cheesemaker. It can also encounter such problems as loss of milk and cream that sticks to the bags, and temperature variations during transport. (Warmed to 25?, the milk is still solid, but quality deteriorates.)

J. Thomas Clark, Old Chatham Sheepherding Company, Old Chatham, New York, the largest sheep milk and sheep dairy product producer in the U.S., has been processing frozen sheep milk for eight years. He said, “Occasionally, processing problems occur that are a mystery, and we believe that the characteristics of frozen milk handling and processing must be looked at more closely. We strongly believe that additional research on both the controls and the handling of frozen milk are necessary.”

Other Cheesemaking Problems

Sid Cook, a fourth-generation cheese-maker with Carr Valley Cheese, Mauston, Wisconsin, has been purchasing sheep milk for five years. He listed a number of problems, including the vast variation of components and its effect on cheese yields. He would like to see component pricing, also called value pricing: that is, payment based not on milk weight or volume, but on the fat and protein content which is important to cheese-makers.

Spooner Research Center (Note the guard donkey, which they believe is friendlier toward visitors than dogs.)
Spooner Research Center (Note the guard donkey, which they believe is friendlier toward visitors than dogs.)

Carr Valley makes 10-12 varieties, with sales of $2 million a year. Some of these cheeses sell in restaurants for as much as $50 a pound.

However, there is a tremendous spread in pricing, one of the problems of a nascent industry. Some distributors have a 20-25% markup. Some only take 10%. And then there are those who double the wholesale price.

There are also regional differences. Milwaukee cheesemongers will laugh at you for trying to sell wholesale at $16/lb., but those in Chicago “won’t bat an eye,” one cheesemaker noted.

Steven Read of Shepherd’s Way said there’s “a mark in the sand: $20/lb. retail.” Above that, volume drops off drastically.

Another price and cost consideration involves imports. Sid Cook said sheep milk producers in Armenia and Spain get $15-$20/cwt., compared to $56 here. If prices are too high, he said, “we won’t move the product. But if they’re too low, we won’t get the milk.”

Yves Berger discussed testing, calculation of yields and adjustment factors.
Yves Berger discussed testing, calculation of yields and adjustment factors.

He feels that big cheese companies have “dumbed down” cheese. Educated consumers accept the “art” of cheese, such as less consistency due to seasonal and other factors.

His uncle knew just how much wood to cut to heat the curd. While he doesn’t want to go back to that, one of his award-winning cheeses is made from a 100-year-old recipe.

One of his greatest fears is that sheep milk cheese will “go the way of organic.” When the big corporations see the consumer interest and profit opportunities, “we could be seeing sheep milk Velveeta.”

The future lies not in imitating imported cheeses, he feels, but in “American originals.” And markups will decrease when distributors view sheep milk cheese as a specialty product, not an artisan one.

Farm Tour Highlights:

More than half of the symposium consisted of farm tours, beginning with the farm of Dan Guertin and his wife, Alice Henriksen.

Dan Guertin & Alice Henriksen : Stillwater, Minnesota

Dan Guertin & wife Alice Hendriksen on their sheep dairy farm near Stillwater, Minnesota.
Dan Guertin & wife Alice Hendriksen on their sheep dairy farm near Stillwater, Minnesota.

Seated on folding chairs in the sheep holding area of the plastic covered greenhouse-like milking parlor, participants listened to Dan’s points to consider when starting a dairy sheep operation based on his own experiences.

Ten years ago, Dan and Alice’s children were gone, and the horses with them. What could they do with their 30 acres in a rapidly growing suburban area practically in the shadow of the Twin Cities? (They paid $4,500 an acre: land there now sells for three and four times that much.)

Investigating several possibilities, they found that sheep milk was selling for 75 cents a pound. With cow milk around 12 cents, that sounded like a pretty good deal, even though the standard at that time was only 120 lbs. of milk in a 90-day lactation. (The co-op currently pays 56 cents a pound, but their production from 120 East Friesian crosses now averages 200 pounds. The co-op resells milk for 67 cents a pound.)

They decided to take what Dan calls the “minimalist” approach. There are few buildings and the sheep are outside all year. When there is snow, they get no water. The “greenhouse” serves as a milking parlor because a permanent structure would entail much higher taxes.

The Guertin/Henriksen farm's greenhouse-like milking parlor.
The Guertin/Henriksen farm’s greenhouse-like milking parlor.

One of the points on his check list for beginners is to ask if your production and expansion goals are realistic. He admits that they didn’t do that: they had no goals! Their sheep were partly a hobby and hopefully a source of supplemental income after he leaves the corporate world in a few years. Mainly, they were just going to produce milk for a local cheese factory.

Startup Costs Are Variable, But Higher Than You’ll Estimate

One point that was repeated again and again by most producers: start-up costs are extremely variable, but get your best estimate-then double it. Also double the time schedule: Nobody starts milking when they planned to!

Within a year after the Hendriksens started milking, both cheese factories in the area were out of business.

The next year a third cheese plant, Montchevre, in southwestern Wisconsin, expressed an interest in sheep milk, but only if they could work with a single source that would handle all the licensing, annual inspections, monthly milk sampling, inventory management and payment to farmers. This led to a meeting of existing and potential sheep milk producers in the Midwest, which resulted in the establishment of the Wisconsin Sheep Dairy Cooperative. This group functioned as a producer agent for Montchevre during the 1996 and 1997 milking seasons. In 1998 it became licensed as a dairy plant, which allowed it to begin marketing milk to additional customers.

Left to right: Steven Read, Sid Cook, and Mary Falk.
Left to right: Steven Read, Sid Cook, and Mary Falk.

All 12 co-op members practice seasonal dairying, milking only between February and October, or less. With their “minimalist” approach, Dan and Alice don’t start lambing until mid-May. Since they leave the lambs with the ewes for 30 days, they don’t start milking until mid-June-when production starts to drop as day length decreases. And they drop back to once-a-day milking at the end of August.

One reason for this schedule is labor. They hire students from a nearby college, who are only available from June through August.

Don’t think that because you live in a rural area you can hire local farm kids to milk, Dan warned. “Once they turn 16, they get their drivers’ licenses and want to work at Wal-Mart.”

The milk is cooled to below 40? within two hours, and frozen in 40-lb. bags within 12 hours. It is stored on pallets in the walk-in freezer until pickup.

To make a profit, Dan says he would need a couple hundred animals milking nine months of the year. But his number one concern is marketing. Considering his densely populated high-traffic area, he’s looking at value-added products.

Paul, Sally & Gina Haskins: Swedish Mission Farm, River Falls, Wisconsin

Swedish Mission Farm, near River Falls, Wisconsin, is a partnership between Paul and Sally Haskins and Paul’s sister, Gina Haskins. All three work off the 100-acre farm, although Paul’s teaching job allows him to be a full-time farmer during the summer.

Some of the many sheep cheeses available at Love Tree Farm, owned by Dave and Mary Falk, Grantsburg, Wisconsin.
Some of the many sheep cheeses available at Love Tree Farm, owned by Dave and Mary Falk, Grantsburg, Wisconsin.

Next year will be their third year of milking, with an anticipated 170 ewes of East Friesian, Suffolk, Icelandic and Lacaune breeding. Their goal is to produce a hybrid ewe that will milk well and produce high quality market lambs when bred to a terminal sire. They milk from early April through September, using rotational grazing and an energy supplement. Paul said the alfalfa pasture does reduce the fat content of the milk, but it increases the protein.

Homegrown alfalfa haylage and barley are fed over winter. They have 40 acres of hay.

The milking parlor, located in a 45′ x 60′ former cow barn, is a double 12 high-line with a pit and six DeLaval milking units. Milk is stored in a 300-gallon bulk tank and a 9′ x 16′ walk-in freezer, which Paul built. The sheep are housed, and lamb in, a 30′ x 120′ open-sided shed.

They lamb in two groups, in early April and May. Some lambs are removed from the ewes 24-48 hours after birth and fed milk replacer (DY1) while others are left with their mothers until weaning at 30 days (DY30), depending on the age and breed of the ewe.

Steven and Jody Read: Shepherd’s Way, Nerstrand, Minnesota

On the other side of the Mississippi River, near Nerstrand, Minnesota, Shepherd’s Way is the home of Steven and Jody Read, their family?and more than 600 milking sheep. This operation also includes a state-of-the-art cheese plant, with Jody the licensed cheesemaker.

They started in sheep in 1994, began milking Rambouillets in 1995, and were charter members of the WSDC in 1996-97. But, says Steven, who has a degree in agriculture, “We didn’t have enough sheep to get enough milk to make enough money to make any sense.”

The 50' x 30' totally insulated lambing shed at the Shepherd's Way Farm. Steven Read milks up to 600 sheep on his farm in Nerstrand, Minnesota, and figures his set-up could handle 1,200 to 1,400 ewes.
The 50′ x 30′ totally insulated lambing shed at the Shepherd’s Way Farm. Steven Read milks up to 600 sheep on his farm in Nerstrand, Minnesota, and figures his set-up could handle 1,200 to 1,400 ewes.

Expansion & Expenses

In April, 2001, they purchased a larger farm. Rather than using the cow barn for sheep and putting up a new building for the cheese plant, they converted the barn into a milking and cheese making facility, and built a new shed for the sheep. This entailed a great deal of time and money and things didn’t progress smoothly. The farm had only $12,000 in sales in 2001, while expenses were well over $400,000. And with equipment problems, the first batch of cheese wasn’t made until June, 2002-12 months later than planned.

With the delays and cost overruns, their banker got nervous and wanted to foreclose. This was avoided, in part by separating the livestock and cheese production into two separate businesses to improve cash flow. They expect to recombine the two in a year or two.

Their problems aren’t over, however. They recently discovered a case of scrapie on their farm. Working closely with the USDA, all the animals were tested, and a large number were destroyed. This story is still unfolding, but Steven said they could consider it a disaster, or a challenge. They chose to look at it as a challenge and an opportunity to improve their flock.

The milking parlor at Swedish Mission Farm.
The milking parlor at Swedish Mission Farm.

In 2004 they milked as many as 525 ewes and produced 220,000 pounds of milk from February to November, for an average of around 425 pounds per ewe. His goal for next year is 525 pounds, and by 2007 he hopes to reach 600 pounds.

With three people, milking 500 sheep takes 3-1/2 hours from sanitizing to cups off, but clean-up takes almost as long. With four people, Steven figures their setup could handle 1,200 to 1,400 ewes.

Lambing protocol is based on the Spooner Research Station models. Lambs are left with the ewes for 12-24 hours. Then the lambs are bottle fed every three hours for 1-2 days. Next they go to a training pen where 5-8 lambs are on an automatic nursing machine. By day five or six, groups of 30 are assembled, still with automatic nursing machines. Lambs are weaned on day 30.

The 50′ x 30′ totally insulated lambing shed can accommodate 400 lambs.


On Jody’s side of the operation, a big batch of cheese uses 4,000 lbs. of milk, while 800 lbs. is considered a “small” one. The cheese is marketed mostly in the Twin Cities area. A licensed cheesemaker, she recently acquired some help in the form of an apprentice.

The delightful 'cave' constructed by Dave Falk at the Love Tree Farm, Grantsburg, Wisconsin.
The delightful ‘cave’ constructed by Dave Falk at the Love Tree Farm, Grantsburg, Wisconsin.

She uses both fluid and frozen milk.

When people interested in sheep or cheese started showing up at the farm, the Reads opened a small cheese store on the premises. Open on Saturday mornings, the store is run by one of their young sons.

[Although not officially part of the symposium, several participants later toured Dave and Mary Falk’s Love Tree Farm near Grantsburg, Wisconsin, and the Spooner Ag Research Station at Spooner. Mary has won top awards for her semi-hard cheeses, which are aged in an absolutely delightful “cave” Dave constructed on their farm. They milk about 200 sheep. They also have a number of guard dogs-including Spanish mastiffs-to help protect the sheep from predators, which increasingly include timber wolves.]

The 2005 Great Lakes Dairy Sheep Symposium will be held in Vermont.

Dairy Sheep Contacts:

Wis. Sheep Dairy Cooperative Membership Information: Larry Meisegeier, N6430 Hwy 40, Bruce WI 54819; 715-868-2285; E-mail: rrsf@brucetel.net

To Purchase Sheep
Milk or Cheese:

Yves Berger, W6646 Hwy 70, Spooner WI 54801; 715-635-3735; E-mail: Ymberger@factstaff.wisc.edu

WSDC Website: www.sheepmilk.biz

Dairy Sheep Association of North America: (Membership $50/yr): Carol Deacon, 2704 Bridgewater Rd., Rock Hill SC 29730; 803-328-8450; E-mail: threedog@flashlink.net

Jd Belanger founded sheep! in 1980. We felt very privileged when he agreed to attend the Great Lakes Dairy Sheep Symposium and provide us with the facts and photos of this important event.-Ed.

Selling Sheep Cheese The Old Way

Translated From Slovak Sources By Eva Griffith

The London Sunday Telegraph newspaper recently reported that Petr Hajek from Pohorne Vsi (Czech Republic) produces sheep cheese for animals in order to avoid the European Union’s (EU) strict hygienic regulations.

These days, Hajek takes in about 4500 Czech crowns weekly (about US$173) but to produce cheese for human consumption under the new regulations, according to the Telegraph, it would cost him about three million Czech crowns (about US$115,000).

Under the title “Ecological Farmer Makes Excellent Sheep Cheese for Pigs” the Czech paper Lidove Noviny informs us that Hajek makes the sheep cheese exactly according to the proven recipe that was handed down to him and tested on several consumer generations.

Under the new EU norms this production of cheese is prohibited, for although very tasty, it’s made of unpasteurized milk, the Czech paper said. In other EU countries, most cheese is made from unpasteurized milk.

Those “Non-Hygienic” British

For example, in one little English town called Cheddar, the CTK news agency confirmed that they produce their cheese exactly the same way-according to the ancient recipe. In addition, in Gloucestershire, at the Charles Martell, the cheese is also made from unpasteurized milk. (Those are far from the only instances-the French and other consumers turn up their noses at most cheese made from pasteurized milk.)

The Sunday Telegraph adds that besides the EU regulations for producing Czech cheese, the Czech province where he lives (Norohradske Hory) requires him to have a separate room for changing into work clothes, a washroom, bathroom, a special room for producing the cheese, a room for storing the cheese while aging and a room for wrapping the cheese.

Getting Around ‘Silly’ Rules

In front of his dilapidated house and falling-down wooden fence there is a sign:

“Sheep cheese produced from unpasteurized milk. …Recipe six generations old. Absolutely not EU compliant, so designated for animal food. Has been tested on humans.”

The Brit paper says an “army” of health inspectors in front of his house and near the area are questioning customers what they’ll do with their cheese. All of them insist they are buying it for animals. One retiree living by himself with a goldfish even said he buys it for his neighbor’s dog.

The Czech bureaucrats couldn’t find a way to close this loophole in the regulations, so now they are saying the cheese is not suitable for animals because it contains herbs and spices. So once again Mr. Hajek’s production is being threatened to be closed or forced to pay a fine of one million Czech crowns.

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