Got Milk? Growing Numbers of Dairy Sheep Say ‘Yes’

11/10/2012 7:35 AM
By Shannon Sollinger Virginia Correspondent

DULLES, Va. — One message came through loud and clear at the 18th annual symposium of the Dairy Sheep Association of North America Oct. 18-20 in Dulles, Va.: Anyone who wants to succeed in this business had better be good with numbers. A background in animal management is a must, and some passing acquaintance with biochemistry wouldn’t hurt.
The location of the annual get-together bears witness to the growing popularity in North America of dairy sheep and artisanal cheese making: This was the first symposium since the inaugural in 1995, and for the first time, sheep creameries in both Maryland and Virginia were up and running and on tour for symposium attendees.
Peggy Crusan, Whistling Hill Farm in Charles Town, W.Va., just last year started milking her 10 ewes — East Friesian, Rambouillet crosses, with some Border Leicester — and made some cheese from it that she has shared with friends.
“They average 2.6 lambs a year and produce a lot of milk, so I thought I’ll try to milk them a little bit. Then I made cheese from it and got hooked. It’s pretty amazing.”
The 18th symposium was her first and she declared it a success. “I love it. I can learn so much by observation.”
The good news is that demand for sheep milk, prized by cheese makers for its high fat and protein content, far exceeds supply.
According to Colleen and Michael Histon, the first dairy sheepherders in Maryland, there are about 100 dairy sheep farms in the U.S., concentrated in New York, New England, the upper Midwest and California.
Robert James, professor of dairy nutrition and management at Virginia Tech, led off the Thursday session with an overview of dairy cattle nutrition and the lessons that might be learned for dairy sheep.
Cattle dairymen have the same goals as the dairy sheepherders, James said: “Breed the animal that makes the most money, not how it looks — you want lots of milk and proteins, longest productive life, low calving weight. And we need to develop a Jersey milk replacer.”
Successful nutrition of the high performance animal, he said, will be research driven. The feed must be mixed and delivered accurately, and the animal must eat it. “That’s the same for sheep or cows.”
The goal is to feed a high energy food that will keep the lactating cow (or ewe) in top condition, James said, but there’s a fine line — feed too much energy and the animal will sicken.
Fats, he said, provide more energy than carbohydrates, and the basic feed is 2 to 3 percent fat. He would like to see that up to 5 to 6 percent.
Every dairy farmer, sheep or cattle, should forage test once a month and invest in feed management software. Even with the best management, he said, people make mistakes — they make mistakes in loading, they forget to recalibrate the scale.
The future of feed management, James said, is the $250,000 Farm of the Future equipment manufactured in Italy by Dinamica Generale.
“Yes, it’s expensive, but it costs $8 to $9 a day to feed a cow and this equipment saves you money on feed.”
Dinamica promises on its website,, that it will save the farmer 1 Euro (more than $1) per cow per day.
“Feeding is the biggest expense, and the biggest source of milk,:” James said.
The next speaker, Dan Morrical, Extension sheep specialist at Iowa State University since 1984, tackled practical feeding guidelines for dairy ewes.
We know a lot, Morrical said: Feed is very expensive (and going up), up to 50 percent of production. Sheep are selective consumers.
Invest in gates and fencing, he advised, and fine tune feeding to specific needs at different stages of gestation and lactation.
It is a given that a ewe with twins produces more milk, he pointed out. That’s because with two lambs suckling, the udder never fills up, never sends any negative feedback to the brain — and the udder keeps producing.
The lesson to be learned: Milk three times a day and you will see increased production.
And then you’re going to have to feed for the added demand on the ewe’s body and chemistry.
He also talked about bringing ultrasound technology to the dairy herd. “It’s great technology that sheep people need. You need to know what you’re feeding, and if you feed the whole herd for twins, you’re feeding a lot of singles like a two: thinner wallet, fatter ewe.”
Trace elements are also a necessity, Morrical said. vitamin E (he dismissed giving weekly shots of vitamin E as “a crutch for poor management”), selenium and iodine are critical.
Read the feed tag, he concluded, and make sure you know what you’re really feeding. Test your hays, mentor the ewes’ body condition, use common sense and make ration changes gradual, add microelements for immunity and health.
Jim and Kim Ashmore, in from their Benton, Mont. ranch, keep meat sheep and are looking to expand into dairy. They shared their lunch table with Jackie Page, whose Page and Pederson International, based in Hopkinton, Mass., makes high-tech milk analyzing equipment.
The Ashmores already have a waiting list for cheese as soon as they start making it, Jim said. The Ashmores are thinking abut crossing their South African Dorpers (a hair sheep with no shearing necessary) with Lacaune (French dairy breed) to produce a dairy sheep that requires less maintenance and puts less energy into wool growth.
The symposium has been great, Jim said.
“Since we are starting from scratch, we are trying to learn from farms and ranches, incorporate that, and hopefully have funds to build a structure that will be as automated as we can make it.”
The goal, he said, is cheese making. “I shared the concept with several businesses in Montana, at workshops and seminars we have attended there, and they are asking us to put them on a list. They want to buy it.”

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