By Amy Conner
November 2004 -- Dairy sheep operations were once considered a risky business in the United States, but with the increasing number of producers entering into the market, the industry has proven to be a viable one.
Cheese is the greatest market for sheep milk throughout the world, although yogurt and ice cream are also made from it. When processing sheep milk into cheese, it has a shorter coagulation time, firmer curd and a higher yield of cheese in comparison to that of cow milk. Sheep milk also has a surprisingly mild flavor and contains about twice the total solids -- more protein, calcium and vitamins -- than cow milk.
The most famous of sheep milk cheeses is Roquefort, a blue cheese. Other common sheep milk cheeses are Manchego, Feta and Pecorino-Romano, which is imported to the United States in quantities larger than any other sheep milk cheese product. With retail costs ranging from $9 to $24 per pound, sheep cheese is generally more expensive than cow or goat milk cheeses.
Although the dairy sheep industry is a well-developed one in parts of Europe, it wasn?t until the mid 1980s that it began in the United States. At that time, the market for dairy sheep was volatile because of the seasonal production of milk, the low volume per animal and the lack of constant product demand.
Tom Kieffer, a Wisconsin dairy sheep producer, says, ?Entering the dairy sheep business in the mid 1990s or before was a very risky proposition, and a high percentage of the early pioneers have since quit the business.?
With the assistance of dairy cooperatives, selective breeding processes and applied research conducted at University of Wisconsin-Madison, Cornell University and others, the industry has made enormous strides in developing markets and producing a quality product for domestic cheese makers.
Cheese maker and dairy sheep producer, Tom Clark, owner of the Old Chatham Sheepherding Co. in Old Chatham, N.Y., says that although sheep cheeses are relatively unknown to the American consumer, the products are getting into stores and consumers are becoming knowledgeable about the product.
?The market is developing significantly for sheep milk cheese because of recent publicity of American-made artisan cheese,? Clark says.
In today?s market, the demand for U.S. sheep milk is greater than the supply, says Dave Thomas, a professor in the Animal Science Department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
?At most the U.S. will produce 1.5 million pounds of sheep milk cheese this year and import more than 70 million pounds of sheep milk cheese,? he says.
Lack of sheep milk is a challenge for the U.S. sheep cheese industry. Clark?s dairy sheep operation produces almost 60 percent of the milk used in their cheeses. He must also purchase frozen sheep milk from dairy sheep farms in Wisconsin and the northeast in order to supply the demand he has for his sheep milk cheese.
Not only is the demand for sheep milk high, but the price is also good: At close to 60 cents per pound, it is three times that of the price for cow milk.
?Today, the dairy sheep business is larger, with more milk producers and more cheese makers,? says Kieffer. ?The market is more stable than it was in the early going, and there are several fairly large and consistent users of sheep milk.?
The sheep milk market has stabilized because of the increased amount of specialty sheep cheese made in the United States. Cheese makers are looking for ways to compete with some of the more common cheeses, such as cheddar, and producing specialty cheese with sheep milk is one way of doing so. Most of the specialty cheeses made from sheep milk are shipped to the coasts to be sold, with New York being the largest market.
One organization dedicated to improving the sheep milk industry is the Dairy Sheep Association of North America (DSANA). Founded in 2002, DSANA works to assist both new and current dairy sheep operations and provide industry news and current technical topics to producers.
Another organization that has brought market stability to the Wisconsin dairy sheep producers is the Wisconsin Sheep Dairy Cooperative (WSDC). The only co-op of its type in the United States, it has been able to identify market needs and provide a stable supply of sheep milk to cheese makers.
Established in 1996, there are now approximately 25 producers who are a part of the co-op, says Yves Berger, superintendent of the Spooner Agriculture Research Station at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
?At first we had a difficult time convincing domestic cheese makers to buy the product (U.S. sheep milk). Now, we can?t fill the demand,? Berger says. ?Cheese makers are finding the U.S. sheep milk to be of extremely high quality compared to imported milk.?
The WSDC provides a channel for sheep milk producers to get their product to cheese makers either as a fluid or in its frozen state. The ability to freeze sheep milk is what makes it a unique milk product, as it can be stored frozen for at least 12 months without appreciable degradation. Although the frozen state is more labor intensive for the cheese makers, there are a couple of benefits: (1) It enables producers to store milk until it is cost efficient for delivery to cheese makers; and (2) it provides a year-round supply of a seasonal product to cheese makers.
?We would not have entered this business without the co-op because we have no interest in making and selling cheese on our own,? says Kieffer. ?The goal is to build a stable successful industry in which small-scale farmers can operate a viable business. We have been able to make it through the early, difficult years because of its ability to pool milk for sale to cheese makers.?
All flocks associated with the WSDC are using seasonal dairying, beginning in February through the end of October. But due to the high demand, year-round milk production is being evaluated.
Old Chatham Sheepherding Co. is one of the few operations that has become successful in milking year-round. It milks 300 to 400 of its 1,000 ewes at a time and is currently working with Cornell University to identify DNA markers in sheep that have a tendency to lamb out of season. This identification process would benefit dairy sheep producers across the country in that it would provide the market with a consistent product throughout the year.
Although there is a large demand for sheep milk, product marketing continues to hinder some dairy sheep producers. For those interested in starting a dairy sheep operation, Thomas suggests either getting several producers to start all at once or making and marketing a farmstead cheese product. Otherwise, operation start-up costs may be high, and getting a large enough volume to sell to cheese makers, sans co-op, is predictably difficult.
?Yves Berger and Dave Thomas have done quite a bit for the industry in terms of helping producers begin an operation, develop techniques to properly freeze milk and have also helped with breeding programs,? says Clark.
Quality breeding is another concern for dairy sheep producers. It is difficult for producers to build their flock so that each animal produces a certain amount of milk to create a profitable operation. There are dairy sheep breeds in Europe that would benefit the U.S. dairy sheep industry, but it is difficult to access foreign dairy sheep genetics because of the strict animal-health regulations on imported animals.
?A major problem with the sourcing of dairy sheep breeding stock in North America is the lack of a national performance testing program for dairy traits,? says Thomas. ?Genetic evaluations are not available on potential breeding animals for producers to make rational selection or purchasing decisions. DSANA is working on the development of a national genetic improvement program for dairy sheep.?
This continual research provides a greater knowledge base for dairy sheep producers and enables industry growth for both sheep milk producers and sheep milk cheese makers.
?The biggest challenge has been the very long development time from our start until we came close to breaking even,? says Kieffer, who speaks from experience gained from his own dairy sheep operation. ?Now, it is very exciting to be right in the middle of the development of this industry that is showing so much promise for continued growth.?
For more information regarding the sheep dairy industry, refer to the Dairy Chapter in the Sheep Production Handbook, 7th Edition, prepared by the American Sheep Industry Association. Or visit the following Web sites:
www.dsana.org www.sheepmilk.biz/ www.uwex.edu/ces/animalscience/sheep/