Dairy Sheep

24.05.17

Milk from sheep (Ovis aries) is an important dairy product in many countries, as a source of drinking milk as well as for processing into yoghurts and specialty cheeses. The main producers of sheep milk and cheese are China and countries in Europe and the Middle East. Sheep’s milk is rich in fats, solids and minerals making it ideal for yoghurt and cheese.

Overview

On average, around 5,500 sheep are milked in Australia on 13 commercial farms. The majority of dairy sheep farmers in Australia focus on manufacturing cheese and yogurt as commercial products rather than milk. Annual production is about 550,000 litres of milk of which more than half is used to make yoghurt and almost all the remainder is made into cheese, which is mainly processed on farm.

Dairy sheep can be farmed under similar climates and conditions as prime lamb producing sheep and dairy cattle. Dairy cattle milking facilities can be modified for dairy sheep, with adjustments being made for managing a smaller animal. Most dairy sheep herds are based on crossbred types, most commonly from crossing prime lamb and carpet wool producing types with the milk producing Awassi and East Friesian types. There is still a need within the Australian dairy sheep industry to develop higher and more reliable milk-producing sheep breeds, however it is difficult to access improved genetic material in Australia.

The dairy sheep industry in Australia is an emerging industry and one which requires the development of further boutique products. It needs to develop a critical mass and industry development needs to be undertaken in a synchronised way to benefit the whole industry.

Facts and figures

  • The dairy sheep industry in Australia is a developing industry
  • The majority of the dairy sheep flocks in Australia are crossbreeds between prime lamb and carpet breeds to the higher milk-producing breeds, East Friesian and Awassi
  • A viable flock size for commercial milk production is around 500 head
  • Markets can be divided into gourmet and ethnic; and include the production of cheeses, yoghurts and ice-cream — the major product in Australia is yoghurt
  • The majority of dairy sheep farmers in Australia focus on manufacturing cheese and yogurt as commercial products rather than milk
  • By-products of sheep dairying include wool and lambs
  • A unique ‘Australian’ dairy sheep product is required to grow the market

Production status

Commercial sheep milk production is nearly 10 million tonnes per year worldwide, more than half of which is produced in Mediterranean countries, where the best dairy sheep breeds have developed over many centuries through selection of good stock.

The sheep dairy industry in Australia has waxed and waned over the years. There have been an estimated 45 sheep milking operations started from the 1960s onwards but by 2013 there were only about eight in commercial production. Dairy sheep producers are found in all Australian states except New South Wales, milking around 4,000 sheep and producing about 500,000 litres of milk annually, half of which is in Victoria. All but one producer process their own product, more than half the output being yoghurt and nearly all the balance made into cheese.

There has been solid growth in demand for sheep milk yoghurt in the Australian marketplace, which is readily available from specialty food stores and supermarkets. Even more promising, is the increasing interest in the European-style specialty cheeses made from sheep milk such as Feta, Ricotta, Haloumi and Pecorino together with local types of fresh, white mould and blue cheeses. Products are marketed through farm shops, farmers markets, deliveries to specialty food stores and through distributors, according to each particular situation and size of operation.

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Map of current and potential growing regions

Uses

Dairy sheep produce a far smaller volume of milk than dairy cows, however it is richer in fat, solids and minerals, making it ideal for the production of yoghurt and cheese.

Sheep milk can be processed into any dairy product by adding starter cultures, and rennet for cheeses, and then varying processing temperatures and maturation times depending on the product being made.

Well-known cheeses made from sheep milk include feta from Greece, Roquefort from France, Manchego from Spain, and Pecorino and Ricotta from Italy.

Yogurts, especially some forms of strained yoghurt may also be made from sheep milk. Other products include soap and sheep milk ice-cream.

Inevitable by-products of the dairy sheep industry are wool and lambs. The wool of milking sheep is usually coarse and therefore not a high value product. Lambs can generate extra income and can be marketed as 10–15kg milk-fed lambs or 30–35kg prime lambs. Production of lambs requires further investment in infrastructure and management and also development of markets.

Production Requirements

Growing regions

Areas suitable to producing prime lambs in Australia are also suitable for running dairy sheep. These are regions in southern Australia such as the wheat–sheep zone, the New South Wales Riverina and the Murray region, and high rainfall areas in south west Victoria and eastern South Australia. These regions are able to produce quality pasture feed for at least eight to nine months of the year, to coincide with joining, late pregnancy and lactation of the sheep.

Access and proximity to milk processors and/or retail markets is important, as well as access to dairy services and suppliers including veterinarians, equipment suppliers and milk testing laboratories. A farm considered marginal for cow dairying may be suitable for dairy sheep but the reasons for marginality should be carefully evaluated for suitability to dairy sheep.

Climate

As with prime lamb production, dairy sheep are suited to temperate and cool climates with dry summers.

Housing

Paddock fencing is required for rotating the herd through pastures for feeding but specific housing is generally not required. However, very young lambs have no body fat and may require housing in clean, warm and dry sheds to protect them from cold, damp and draughts. This level of protection can be decreased as the lambs grow. It is worth noting that milk production is generally higher from housed sheep but the extra costs of housing need to be taken into account.

Feed requirements

In Australia, dairy sheep generally graze on pasture and forage crops and have access to supplementary feeding whilst being milked in the dairy. Supplementary feeding may also be required in the paddock, depending on the season and reproductive stage of the flock.

Energy and protein are the two major feed requirements for dairy sheep, and the most important factors in calculating feed rations. Energy is the most common nutritional deficiency limiting productivity, whilst protein is a vital requirement for growth, pregnancy and milk production. For profitable milk production, ewes need a ration of similar quality to crossbred ewes rearing prime lambs. This equates to a daily intake of 20 megajoules of metabolisable energy per day. Good pasture generally provides adequate protein except where there is a large amount of dry matter.

Another consideration in providing feed to dairy sheep is the need to keep the flock in close proximity to the milking shed. It is recommended that sheep be grazed a maximum distance of 500m from the milking shed to reduce the energy used to move sheep to the milking shed each day.

An alternative feed regime is to maintain the sheep in a feedlot. This provides advantages in terms of making the management of milking and general husbandry easier, but it has higher capital, operating and feedstock costs.

Breeds and breeding

As with all dairy animals the characteristic to look for in a breed of sheep for milking is the length of lactation.  There are only a small number of sheep breeds that are farmed specifically for dairy and these have been selectively bred for milk production to produce a higher volume of milk than other sheep breeds. Highly productive dairy sheep breeds include the Lacaune from France, Sarda from Italy, Awassi from Israel, East Friesian from northern Europe and Chios from Greece.

The Lacaune is the most genetically advanced and has the best documented performance due to production improvement schemes that have been operating for 40 years. Unfortunately, dairy breeds of the production standard found in Europe are not commercially available in Australia, which is constraining the industry to develop a commercially profitable model of sheep dairying.

The majority of Australian dairy sheep herds are crossbreeds, resulting from dairy breeds crossed with prime lamb and carpet wool breeds. East Friesian and Awassi genetics were the main imports into New Zealand and Australia in the 1990s and form a component of most of the dairy sheep flocks in both countries. The East Friesian bloodlines, that increase milk production and prolong lactation, are by far the most widespread and accessible.

To maintain year round milk supply, sheep flocks are usually mated at intervals throughout the year and two or three separate flocks are run for this purpose. However, some farms use a single flock and accept the shorter lactation period.

Artificial breeding with dairy sheep is less successful than natural mating. Semen from recognised dairy breeds is not widely available in Australia and the genetic base is limited. There is considerable interest in importing genetic material but quarantine issues make this difficult.

Sourcing stock

Sheep of suitable breeds for milking are available through markets, stock agents or private sellers, although stock from established dairy sheep flocks can be difficult to source. The possibility of buying excess ewe or ram replacements from these flocks could be an option for sourcing stock for breeding. Considerations when buying stock include:

  • annual flock milk production figures, if available, as they are more reliable than daily yields or individual herd test figures
  • good condition of young ewes, with a flock history including weaning rates and health status
  • disease status of the sheep
  • temperament
  • amount of wool around the tail, as too much wool can pose hygiene issues in the dairy.

It is important to note that up to half of the volume of milk produced by a sheep is influenced by environmental factors, rather than genetics, so managing these should be a major component of dairy sheep management.

If breeding by artificial insemination is a consideration, source semen from East Friesian, East Friesian cross, Awassi or other dairy breed rams; although as previously mentioned, artificial insemination is not as successful in dairy sheep as natural mating.

Healthcare, pests and diseases

Milk production in all dairy animals is acutely sensitive to stress factors. Even minor issues may have a noticeable impact day to day, and chronic disease in the flock is likely to have such a large impact that it could potentially undermine the commercial viability of the enterprise.

Comprehensive information on the diseases suffered by dairy sheep in Australia can be found in the Dairy sheep manual, these include:

  • fly strike and soiled wool
  • lice
  • foot problems
  • ovine Johne’s disease
  • hypocalcaemia (milk fever)
  • pregnancy toxaemia
  • hypomagnesia
  • clostridial diseases
  • mastitis
  • worms.

It is essential that good healthcare practices be adopted for farming dairy sheep, additional advice can be obtained from state departments of agriculture and veterinarians.

Infrastructure Requirements

Infrastructure used for dairy cows has been successfully applied to dairy sheep with little adaptation required in areas such as grazing management, feeding systems and milking management.

Specific consideration of fencing needs to be given to imported breeds of dairy sheep, as these may require more substantial herd control.

Expert advice should be sought in establishing a sheep milk enterprise. Dairy cow handling and milking systems can be adapted for sheep but considerations must be given to managing smaller animals.

Basic requirements for sheep dairying include: sheds, yards, milking shed with plant, milk storage facilities, feed storage facilities, storage for dangerous chemicals and provision of water including hot water.

Harvesting & Processing

The majority of Australian dairy sheep enterprises process their own milk into boutique or gourmet products. The first Australian attempts to produce sheep milk cheeses imitated imported overseas cheeses such as Pecorino and Feta. However, these cheeses are protected by tariffs and trademarks, or suffer from serious competition from cheap cow’s milk imitations. An additional complication is that some of these cheeses (e.g. Pecorino) require long maturation times, involving high storage costs and risk of spoilage during storage.

To establish a viable sheep milking industry, other successful industries, such as the wine industry, suggest developing local specialty Australian products.

Consumer behaviour indicates that Australian tastes are for mild products rather than the strong flavours, typical of the imported sheep milk cheeses and this may be a starting point for developing Australian products. By far the largest proportion of sheep milk product in Australia is yoghurt.

Some growers sell their products directly from the farm gate or via internet sales and through cafes, restaurants and boutique style supermarkets. Growers may also consider selling direct to the public at farmers markets, which are becoming increasingly popular.

Markets & Marketing

Australia imports around AU$8 million worth of sheep milk products every year. Almost all Australian sheep milk is marketed domestically as yoghurt (around 60%) and cheese. There is little demand for sheep milk apart from limited sales through health food outlets. Markets can be divided into gourmet and ethnic, the latter being strictly traditional and price conscious. Australian producers make sheep cheeses of various styles from feta to mature hard cheeses similar to the classic Italian and Greek styles. Compared with cows milk, sheep milk produces cheeses of higher yield, whiter colour, richer taste and better nutritional quality.

Markets could be expanded with the development of dairy products suitable for Australian consumers. Research was undertaken to develop healthy sheep milk products from feeding specialist rations such as canola and brewers grain, and the project considered the development of a specialist sheep milk ice-cream.

Risks & Regulations

Risks/challenges

The main challenge for the Australian dairy sheep industry has been the development of an efficient model of milking sheep, with the major issue being the lack of high milk-producing sheep genotypes in Australia. Management protocols that both maximise the milk yield of Australian dairy sheep and optimise the ability to select for milk production have been produced in research undertaken by a Victorian sheep dairy company.

A challenge faced by the Australian sheep milking industry is the development of dairy products suitable for Australian consumers and the establishment of markets for these products. Research has been undertaken to develop healthy sheep milk products from feeding specialist rations such as canola and brewers grain.

Regulatory considerations

Environmental regulations need to be considered with the siting of a new milking enterprise, especially ensuring that effluent is managed responsibly. Regulations in regard to these factors will vary between local government areas.

Any business processing primary products and manufacturing food for sale must comply with standards defined by the Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code. The interpretation and enforcement of the code is the responsibility of dairy food authorities and health departments in each state. Dairy Australia provides links to these authorities on its webpage: Dairy food regulatory framework.

Image Gallery

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Dairy herd at the Meredith Dairy

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East Friesian Sheep

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Awassi Sheep

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Sheep queued for milking

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