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Sheep Dairies

Why aren’t there more in Vermont?

David Major’s flock at Vermont Shepherd
David Major’s flock at Vermont Shepherd

Written By

Katie Sullivan

Written on

August 25 , 2015

Vermont is famous for cow dairies, but as the market for artisanal cheese has boomed, goat and sheep milk cheeses have entered the mix. Over the past 20 years, a number of farmers have launched goat dairies for farmstead cheese and for fluid milk sales. Some are former cow operations that switched business models when cow milk prices plummeted. Others began with dairy goats from the start. 

Sheep dairies, on the other hand, have not taken off as quickly. No reliable information is available detailing exactly how many sheep dairies exist in the U.S., although there appear to be a cluster of sheep dairies in Wisconsin. Old Chatham Sheepherding Company in Old Chatham, New York, is one of the largest sheep dairy farms in the U.S. They raise 1,000 East Friesian ewes and crosses, and manufacture Black Sheep Cheese and Black Sheep Yogurt, which can be found in some Vermont food stores.

In Vermont, there are at least three sheep dairies actively selling sheep’s milk cheese, according to the Vermont Cheese Council: Woodcock Farm in Weston, Bonnieview Farm in Craftsbury, and Vermont Shepherd in Putney. Each of these farms creates award-winning cheeses, but none produce sheep’s milk to drink, sheep yogurt, sheep kefir, sheep ice cream, or any other sheep dairy products. Wild Shepherd Farm in Athens ships sheep's milk and is planning to move to cheese production.

Why the dearth of sheep’s milk products in Vermont? Why aren’t there more large sheep dairies around? And what is the potential for more sheep dairies in our state?

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There is actually very little domestic research or scientific study devoted to sheep dairying. Cow dairy research abounds, covering topics such as nutritional chemistry, genetic statistic analysis for performance improvement, and even basic design for cow housing. And goat dairy managers have comparable resources, although goat genetic improvement lags behind current dairy cattle research.

Carol Delaney, former University of Vermont Extension Small Ruminant Specialist, told me that sheep dairies in the U.S. lack several support structures available to cow and goat dairies. American sheep producers do not have an association that independently gathers, records, and retains production statistics, as the Dairy Herd Improvement Association does, nor is there a network that provides peer-to-peer support or mutual advice and assistance. Only the University of Wisconsin Extension Service appears to engage in a serious effort to research sheep dairy breeds and practices in a university context. Perhaps due to the academic support, the state of Wisconsin is home to the only sheep’s milk dairy co-op in the U.S., known as the Wisconsin Sheep Dairy Cooperative. The WSDC website lists six farm members, who supply milk to their own cheesemaking operation while selling surplus to other sheep cheese makers. They do not advertise any other sheep milk products.

The University of Wisconsin Extension notes that the main dairy sheep breed in the United States is the East Friesian, with British Milk Sheep, Awassi, and Lacaune sheep being either uncommon or unavailable in the U.S. A ban on most embryo and semen imports from Europe, prompted by disease concerns, has prevented the best milking genetics from large sheep dairies in Europe from benefitting producers here.

At the core of sheep economics is the fact that, even though sheep’s milk is richer than goat’s milk, female sheep have shorter lactations and give much less milk overall. Meat and wool breeds of sheep have a lactation of approximately three to five months, giving 100 to 200 lbs. of milk. Dedicated dairy breeds lactate for four to six months, giving 400 to 1,100 lbs. of milk depending on age, feed management, and genetic capacity. By comparison, goat dairy budgets generally cite a milk estimate of approximately 1,700 lbs. per goat, although the best large goat dairies average closer to 2,500 to 3,000 lbs. per goat.

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Because sheep give less milk than cows and most goats, the wool and meat lambs that are produced at sheep dairy farms generally account for a larger proportion of the revenue of a sheep dairy enterprise than sales of bull calves or extra baby goats by cow and goat dairies. The University of Wisconsin Extension notes that East Friesian sheep are generally considered to have poor meat qualities (insufficient muscle and fat), but producers can choose to cross their ewes with meat breed rams for improved meat conformation in offspring. A sample budget offered by the Extension suggests that receipts for wholesale lamb meat and wool may equal the wholesale value of the milk produced by the ewes. Virtually no conventional cow dairies raise bull calves past their initial few days. 

Two of Vermont’s three sheep dairies milk cows in the fall, winter, and early spring, providing an additional revenue stream. Unlike cows, which can breed year-round, sheep breed seasonally (in fall and lamb in the spring), but artificial light or hormone inserts can be used to induce breeding in sheep at other times. Large dairies tend to do this, milking their herds in smaller groups for year-round production. Small dairies that want to make cheese year-round may choose to purchase additional sheep milk from nearby sources, or breed cows during the sheep “off-season.”

At Bonnieview Farm, Neil and Kristin Urie have approximately 200 sheep, total, and 13 cows. Milking both cows and sheep enables them to create unique blended-milk cheeses year-round, which in turn generates income year-round. (The Uries also sell lamb, while their wool mainly goes to the Vermont Wool Pool. Neil notes that blended-milk cheeses generate income year-round.) Neil estimates that his 130 milking East Friesians create the same amount of cheese as his 13 cows. Maintaining a few cows is more sustainable for his pasture operation than expanding the number of sheep, as cows and sheep can make complementary use of existing pasture without pressuring the farm to acquire more land.

At Woodcock Farm, Mark and Gari Fischer and their daughter, Samantha, milk 75 to 100 East Friesian ewes from May to September and make cheese from cow’s milk at other times of the year. Mark estimates that each of his sheep produce 450 lbs. of milk for cheesemaking purposes after nursing their lambs for one month. Having tried feeding the lambs on sheep’s milk, cow’s milk, and milk replacer, Mark determined that it was best to let the ewes raise their lambs themselves, even though it skewed milk availability.

Mark told me that improving production is a challenge, as the restricted genetic stock of sheep dairy breeds in the U.S. means that many flocks are closely related. His flock produces milk that has 6 percent fat and 5 percent protein, roughly double the milk solids available in most cow’s and goat’s milk. Increased milk solids represent significantly increased cheese yields. Neil Urie agrees that genetic improvement is a major issue for sheep dairy managers. He states his main goal is maintaining his flock’s current production capacity while increasing animal hardiness.

Before speaking with Neil and Mark, I had supposed that part of the reason we don’t see more sheep’s milk yogurt is because cheese is more profitable; it is generally less perishable than yogurt and it sells for upwards of $25/lb. in some urban markets. But Mark noted that yogurt has different infrastructure and manufacturing requirements than cheese, requiring more frequent milk testing and a more rapid distribution network. And although yogurt has a 100 percent yield from the amount of milk used, compared to a 5:1 ratio of milk to cheese, yogurt manufacturing tends to incur increased storage and transportation costs.
Neil also notes that Vermont requires a mechanical container filler, a machine that simply wouldn’t fit into his cheese room in its current dimensions. With demand for sheep cheese remaining strong, there is little incentive to add an additional enterprise to a successful cheesemaking venture.

As if to drive the point home, Neil suggested that I contact Willow Hill Farm in Milton. There, Willow Smart and David Phinney once milked East Friesian sheep and made cheese and yogurt. They sold their sheep flock in 2013. Today, cows form the backbone of their cheese business, complemented by a sideline of pick-your-own blueberries. Lack of pasture resources and insufficient markets for their lambs were the causes they cited for changing their business plan. They also said that small flocks are too labor intensive to support farmers, and that larger farms with better economies of scale seem to offer a better approach for sheep dairy farming.

Old Chatham Sheepherding Company in upstate New York raises 1,600 East Friesian ewes for their yogurt and cheese. Each sheep produces an average of 600 to 800 pounds of milk per lactation, with each ewe lambing every 8 to 10 months. This allows for an annual milk production of around 900 to 1,100 pounds per ewe. The farm milks 800 to 1,000 ewes at any given time, ensuring milk availability throughout the year.

Carol Delaney, in her manual A Guide to Starting a Commercial Goat Dairy, estimates that a couple hoping to support themselves with a goat cheese enterprise in which they no longer need to retail all of their cheese at farmers’ markets or events will have to produce 40,000 lbs. of cheese annually. With a sheep flock in which one sheep provides milk for 80 to 100 lbs. of cheese, 40,000 lbs. of  cheese would require 400 to 500 sheep, a number that almost certainly requires more labor than two people can provide without paid help. And of course, the paid help would increase the cost of the cheese or require more cheese to be produced.

I believe in sustainable farming, and as someone who raises sheep for meat, I want to believe that sheep dairy farming can be part of it. But sheep dairies, like cow and goat dairies, need infrastructure in the form of feed providers, fresh genetics, breeding resources, expert advisors, and experienced peers. Little of these critical resources exist in the U.S. for sheep, let alone for Vermont sheep specifically. Such a situation leaves prospective sheep farmers in the position of having to do their own research and think creatively about how to make a profit.

The anecdata I’ve gathered and the numbers I’ve seen suggest that, despite the popularity of sheep’s milk cheeses, sheep dairying may only play a small role in the dairy future of Vermont unless changes appear on the horizon.

About the Author

Katie Sullivan

Katie Sullivan

Katie Sullivan currently raises sheep for fun and profit in Williston. Learn more about her enterprise at sheepandpicklefarm.com.

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