Lately, I’ve been researching dairy sheep. Why? Because I know so little about them! And because when the time comes to have children, I need a supply of good milk to feed the babes.
Being a carrier of Lyme disease, I cannot breastfeed without heightened risk of transmitting my ‘issue’ to children. And unfortunately, my husband’s side of the family has propensity toward dairy sensitivities and allergies. Hardly comforting when one cannot breastfeed!
We’ve concluded that when the time comes to have children, we would be wise to keep a dairy animal whose milk is easy on the digestive system. Enter our considerations of both goat and sheep!
POSSIBILITY OF GOATS
At first we thought goats might be the answer. And they may be yet. But my man and I know enough to be wary. Goats are escape artists and can not only get out of just about anything, but also into everything. We want gardens. Berries. Fruit trees. And critters that will stay out of them.
It wasn’t merely this that caused us to consider dairy sheep. Males goats (bucks) are necessary for milk production and carry a very strong odor, making them less desirable for small acreages.
The flavor of a goat’s milk is dependent on their diet and can drastically change in flavor. Ever heard of milk that tastes “goaty?” Most folks don’t care for it when this shines through!
It was only recently that we began considering sheep. Why? Because sheep milk sounds amazing!
WHY SHEEP MILK?
Those who cannot handle cow or goat milk can often drink that of the sheep. Sheep’s milk contains smaller fat globules than that of either the goat or cow. With one of us having a family history of dairy allergies…well, we want to give our children every fighting chance!
According to my research (remember, I have no personal experience) sheep’s milk maintains a steady flavor and is similar to a cow in that regard. Unlike goats, sheep milk isn’t supposed to go “sheepy.”
Sheep milk contains more natural fats, vitamins and minerals than either the cow or goat. It’s butterfat content (avg. 9.0) is higher than that of a goat (avg. 4.2) or a cow ( avg. 3.8)*. Most claim that sheep milk is far more creamy in texture and in some cases “too sweet to drink on it’s own.”
Sheep milk is very high in solids and contains almost twice the amount you’ll get from cow or goat milk. This is good news for those who wish to make their own dairy products! Less milk for more cheese is always a good thing, particularly when sheep yield less than either goat or cow (see below).
BASIC RUN DOWN ON DAIRY SHEEP
Historians declare that sheep were the first mammals to be milked by humans. Dairy sheep are still very popular in European countries and along the Mediterranean. In the Northwest, there is only a handful of pure dairy breeds.
According to my research, dairy sheep average 1/2 gallon (8 C or 2 litres) of milk per day. It is possible to milk “non-dairy” breeds (such as the Dorset and Icelandic) but the yield will be lower and lactation period, shorter.
Sheep are ruminants and therefore, chew the cud. Their average lifespan is 10-12 years.
In terms of diet, the sheep isn’t as particular as the cow (grass only) but isn’t so versatile as the goat who eats everything. If given first choice in the pasture, these mammals will consume forbs first (non-grass, non-wood plants).
When winter temps claim grazing land, sheep can be fed hay and minimal amounts of grain. Expecting mothers are usually given a bit of ‘extra love’ in the food department.
Most ewe lambs are ready for breeding around 1 year of age. Always check into the particulars of each breed: some come into heat every year (in the fall), while others can be bred up to 3x in 12 months.
The gestation period for sheep is approx 142-152 days (roughly 5 months). Particular breeds are known for high lamb production and it is not uncommon for these ewes to give birth to triplets.
Their lactation (milk supplying) period is shorter than that of a cow or even goat. Dairy breeds should supply milk for 240 days (8 months). Non dairy breeds-yes, you can milk them!-may provide milk for a maximum of 150 days (5 months).
ISSUES WITH DAIRY SHEEP
Pure-bred dairy sheep (incredibly difficult to source in NA) are prone to health complications, as are most purebred mammals. For this reason, they are often cross-bred with their meat or wool cousins in hopes of developing hardier lambs.
Sheep and their lambs in particular are susceptible to predators (dogs, coyotes, wolves, cougars). If breeding ewes and raising lambs a solid fence and safe enclosure (barn of some sort) is much desired.
Dairy breeds may grow wool (let the owner take note) will need to be sheared once a year, usually in the spring.
If you practice pasture rotation with your sheep, parasites can be controlled by natural methods. If not, sheep will need to be de-wormed at least once a year.
Sheep are more difficult to milk than either the goat or cow based on these two factors: teats are small, therefore more difficult to strip milk from (youtube video) and sheep tend to be flighty, are easily scared.
Lastly, dairy sheep cost. While they are popular in European countries, they are only just gaining foot in the USA and CA. Because of their scarcity, you’ll likely be traveling more than a few miles from home to source a flock. And with a wad of cash to boot!
For those who are truly interested in dairy sheep, perhaps you should consider joining the facebook group “Homestead Dairy Sheep.”
WILL WE GET A DAIRY SHEEP OR TWO?
The more I learn, the more I’m inclined toward them. Though I have yet to research how sheep milk affects infants. Will it, like goat milk, need amending?
I’m intrigued, which is partly why we plan on purchasing two Suffolk lambs for meat this spring. We’d like some sheep experience before we really entertain the idea of costly dairy breeds. And who doesn’t like lamb?!
l’m glad they’ll be 6 months old when butcher time rolls around! Who could put a lamb down when they’re cute as this?
Should you have any tips or advice on dairy sheep or feeding it to infants, send the goods my way! ‘Cause I’m going to be researching and learning all I can over the next while!
*numbers taken from Ricki Carroll’s book Home Cheese Making, 3rd edition.