Sheep’s milk is delicious, nutritious, and makes wonderful cheese – but you can’t buy it at the store. Here are a few tips for raising your own sheep for milk…
You might not think of sheep as the greatest milk producers, and they’re not – but sheep’s milk is quite delicious and may be easier for some people to digest than cow’s milk.
Humans have been drinking sheep’s milk for thousands of years, but most people in the U.S. aren’t familiar with sheep’s milk except for in some cheeses. Because sheep’s milk is higher in protein and healthy fats than cow’s or goats milk, it tends to make rich, flavorful cheeses, and offers a much higher cheese-to-milk yield. Some sheep’s milk cheeses you may have heard of or enjoyed include feta, Pecorino Romano, manchego, and Roquefort.
If you want to try making your own sheep’s milk cheese, you will likely have to milk your own sheep, as it is nearly impossible to find sheep’s milk to buy – at least in this country. Below are a few pros and cons to raising sheep for milk:
- Sheep can be challenging to raise. True, sheep make milk from grass and hay and don’t need grain, but they can be really sheep-headed. The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence and they follow the leader into any and all sorts of trouble.
- A ewe doesn’t make a lot of milk, compared to a goat or cow. Most breeds of sheep produce just 100 to 200 pounds of milk total (that’s 50 to 100 quarts) during the months following lambing. Even dairy breeds, such as the East Friesian (the most common and productive breed of dairy sheep in the U.S.), produce only 4 or 5 times that much (990 to 1,100 pounds) per cycle. And you won’t get all of it: Unless you take the lambs away from their mamas after 24 hours and raise them on purchased milk replacer (standard practice in many commercial dairies, but, seriously, yuck; and a lot of extra work) you are going to be sharing that limited supply milk with its rightful owners for the first 4 to 6 weeks.
- Sheep don’t make milk year-round. Unlike cows and goats, most sheep breeds produce milk for only 4 to 6 months after having a lamb (or lambs), and even dairy breeds will produce milk for only 7 to 8 months. Also, many kinds of sheep will only breed in the fall (for spring lambs). This seasonal production isn’t a problem for someone like me, but it is easy to see how it drives up the cost of producing sheep’s milk cheese commercially (your workers take half the year off while needing care and feeding all year).
- Sheep are hard to milk. Sheep tend to be tougher to milk than cows or goats, so you’ll need some practice. It would be best to learn on a goat or cow first, if you aren’t already familiar with the process, then work your way up to sheep.
- You can freeze sheep’s milk. Unlike cow’s or goat’s milk, you can freeze and then thaw sheep’s milk without compromising its cheese-making quality. This is a big plus if you only have a few ewes and/or want to make cheese once in a while. Sheep’s milk is usually sweet and mild. If you aren’t fond of the flavor of some goat’s milk cheeses, sheep’s milk cheeses may be a good option as they rarely if ever have any of that muskiness.
- Sheep’s milk makes lots of cheese. Since sheep’s milk is so concentrated you get twice as much cheese (18 to 25%) from a given volume of milk than you do from cow’s or goat’s milk (which yield only 9 to 10%)…
- Sheep’s milk cheese is easy to digest. The small fat globules in sheep’s milk make it easier to digest than cow’s or goat’s milk. This is a real plus if you or anyone in your family has problems eating cheese.