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
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.