The Wonder (and Lunacy) of Sheep dairying at Green Dirt Farm




Sheep Dairying Has An Ancient History

Sheep dairying has deep roots in southern and eastern Europe, where it’s been a tradition dating back centuries. Sheep milk produces many beloved traditional cheeses, like Roquefort in France, Manchego in Spain, and the Pecorino cheeses from Italy. However, sheep dairying only began to be introduced as a commercial farming enterprise in the US in the early 1990s. At that time, a few entrepreneurial farmers, eager to become part of the growing artisan cheese movement in the US, imported the very first dairy sheep into the US.

So What? What Makes Sheep Milk Better?

But why bother when there’s cow’s milk and goat’s milk? I’m often asked what sets sheep’s milk apart from these other milks. In part, the rich flavor differs from the other dairy milks, making it ideal for crafting delicious artisanal cheeses and yogurts. Sheep milk doesn’t have the gamey taste people sometimes dislike about goat milk. The flavors in sheep milk age remarkably well, creating characteristic caramel and nutty flavors after aging. Sheep milk is more concentrated with more milk solids than cow or goat milk, giving it a rich, luxurious texture that makes a fabulous creamer for coffee or extra-thick yogurt without special processing. 

Add to that, it has very different proteins compared to cow or goat milk. These differences make digesting sheep milk easier for individuals with cow milk intolerances. The medium and short-chain fatty acids that make up the fats in sheep milk are more “heart healthy” than the long-chain fatty acids in cow’s milk. Plus, it has nearly twice the calcium of cow’s milk. All this adds up to a healthier, more nutritious milk that can be tolerated by many people with cow’s milk allergies and intolerances.

Why is It So Hard to Get, and Why is It So Expensive?

However, on the economic downside, unlike conventional dairy farming with cows, sheep milking is done on a relatively small scale, requiring meticulous care and attention to detail. Each ewe produces significantly less milk than a dairy cow and requires the highest quality pasture and supplementary feed, adding to the production costs. For example, a good-producing ewe makes only 4-6 pounds of milk daily compared to over 70 pounds from a cow in industrial confinement.

Because of these higher costs and lower production, sheep milk products are much more expensive than their cow and goat milk cousins. However, sheep dairy products appeal to discerning consumers who appreciate their unique taste and the craftsmanship behind their production and are searching for an alternative to cow’s milk that doesn’t have the adverse health issues associated with cow’s milk. In addition, we believe that artisanal small-scale dairy farmers, dedicated to the ecological protection of their land and the premium quality of their products, will play a pivotal role in shaping the future of dairying.

Crazy Sheep at Green Dirt Farm

Here at Green Dirt Farm, our sheep dairying journey began in 2002 when I purchased our first twelve ewes and a single ram from a sheep dairy in Wisconsin and another twelve Gulf Coast ewes and rams from a farm in Missouri. My original (ill-fated) intention was to cross-breed these sheep and select for parasite-resistant dairy sheep. 

Gulf Coast sheep are a fascinating breed of sheep that are one of only a few sheep breeds in the world resistant to the internal parasites that are killers of domesticated sheep. The Gulf Coast Sheep became parasite-resistant because they were released into the wild pine barrens of Florida, Alabama, and Louisiana by Spanish Conquistadors over 400 years ago. In the hot, humid sub-tropical climate, they experienced intense natural selection and became parasite-resistant through “survival of the fittest.” But, as I learned through sometimes hilarious and sometimes painful experiences, my idea of creating parasite-resistant dairy sheep was completely harebrained. Because in the Gulf Coast pine barrens’ remote, isolated, and wild environment, the Gulf Coast Sheep also became feral! 

Dairy Sheep Must Be Calm

There’s a reason it’s taken centuries of tradition for farmers to develop dairy animals that we can milk! Dairy animals must be able to readily enter the milking parlor and be calm when being handled by people so they can relax and let down their milk. Gulf Coast sheep were just too wild to milk! By 2007, my original idea was a bust, and I knew I needed to rework my plans to use more pure-bred dairy sheep. 

Sheep Dairy Farming In The US Is Failing

However, the trouble with my new plan was that there were very few good dairy sheep in the US to choose from. You see, just about the same time the very first dairy sheep were brought into the US from Europe in the early 1990s, there were outbreaks in Europe of two devastating diseases, Foot and Mouth disease and Mad Cow disease. These two diseases caused the USDA to close the borders to all new importations of ruminant animals, including dairy sheep. Even by the early 2000s, importing new animals was an overwhelming undertaking requiring time-consuming bureaucratic paperwork and huge expense.

So, dairy sheep farmers only had access to the few genetic lines that entered the US in the early nineties, and these were definitely not the ‘cream’ of the European crop. The average milk production of the original importations was less than half that of a high-quality improved dairy sheep in Europe. Many US dairy sheep farms were going out of business because of the inferior production of their animals. Sheep dairying was just not economically viable under these conditions.

The Dairy Sheep Association of North America to the Rescue!

Lucky for us and other dairy sheep farmers in the US, in 2015, the Dairy Sheep Association of North America (DSANA), championed by Tom Clark of Old Chatham Sheepherding Company, undertook the arduous process of importing high-quality dairy sheep genetics in the form of frozen semen from France. The French dairy breed of sheep, the Lacaune, has been systematically and methodically selected for the past 100 years, resulting in dairy sheep with much-improved milk production, quality, and health. By 2017, after two long years of working on it, DSANA members could now access semen from the top rams in the Lacaune breed. 

Sheep Dairying at Green Dirt Farm Gets Easier

Green Dirt Farm did our first breeding with the imported semen in 2017. By this time, my daughter Eliza Spertus was managing our dairy flock. Using the imported semen and careful record-keeping, Eliza was able to improve the average milk production of our flock by over 100%! This production improvement will significantly impact the sustainability of our business and the entire dairy sheep industry in the US.

Looking ahead, the future of sheep dairying holds promise. As consumer interest in alternative milk and earth-friendly foods grows, advancements in farming practices and ongoing efforts to improve milk production offer a bright potential for broader accessibility to sheep milk products in the American marketplace.

Try Some Sheep Dairy Products- See Why They’re So Fabulous!

Next time you explore your cheese shop or specialty grocery store, consider adding one of our sheep milk cheeses to your basket. Or select some of our award-winning cheeses on our website and have them shipped directly to your doorstep. Click here to visit our online store. Embrace the opportunity to experience our cheeses’ distinctive flavors and artisanal expertise —a culinary journey that combines tradition, healthfulness, and joie de vivre!

Come back for more posts about the incredible world of sheep dairying and artisanal cheese-making with sheep milk! All the best, Sarah

A collection of Green Dirt Farm Sheep Milk Cheeses

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