If the prospect or launching a dairy sheep operation interests you, here’s what you need:
- Some sheep!
- A milking parlor and equipment.
- A way to market your milk or milk products.
Which sheep breeds are best?
All sheep produce milk. But huge differences exist within and between breeds. Some milk better than others. Some are healthier. And some sheep milk longer than others.
Every flock of every breed will have some ewes that milk exceptionally well and are always hard to dry off, and these ewes can be a good starting point for new sheep dairy farmers. But while all sheep produce milk, local breeds like the Dorset, Suffolk, Cheviot and Oxford just can’t produce enough to make a dairy business worthwhile.
To get into the business, you need to look to breeds that consistently milk better than others. The Rideau Arcott and Polypay are two North American breeds that have been used for dairy purposes. But the East Friesian sheep top the milking charts, producing about four times as much milk as the sheep breeds common in Canada.
In 1994, WoolDrift imported the first “true” milk sheep into Canada as frozen embryos. These East Friesians have since spawned generations of North American milking sheep. And in the ensuing years, other milk sheep breeds, namely the Lacaune and Awassi, have joined the East Friesians. These breeds are to North American breeds as Holsteins and Jerseys are to Hereford cattle.
While purebred milk sheep produce the most and best milk, some farmers decide to start with halfbred animals. These sheep show marked improvement in production over North American breeds, along with easier management and lower start-up costs.
Milking parlour and equipment
A well-designed parlour and milk house makes milking your sheep fast and efficient. The basic elements of your set-up will include a route from the waiting room to the parlour, stalls to hold the animals in place during milking, exit ramps, milking equipment, pipelines to the milk house, sanitation and storage equipment in the milk house.
You can purchase new equipment, purchase used equipment, or do some combination of the two, including building your own equipment.
At WoolDrift, we were in the unique position of having to build a dairy operation twice (including parlours), because of a forced move in 2000. Based on our experience the first time ’round, we custom-built our second milking parlour. Our total cost, including the pipeline milking system for a 12-stall parlour, was $17,000 about 18 years ago.
Believe it or not, the best thing you can do is to begin marketing your milk before you even buy your first sheep. After all, if no one’s buying your milk, there’s not much point in producing it.
You have a couple of potential markets to sell your dairy to.
Sheep milk dairy processors
Processors buy your milk in quantity to package or process into cheese and other products. So begin by seeking out local, or relatively local, processors and try to get an idea of what they’ll pay. This has the added benefit of making your introduction to the processors, and with some persistence, you can build a relationship with them even as you’re setting up your operation.
You might also ask:
- How much milk do they want from a farm?
- Is winter production a requirement?
- What do they charge for hauling and other costs?
Of course, you may find yourself in a Catch-22 when they say, “Come and ask me when you have some milk to sell.” So your next step is to find other farmers who are selling to these processors to get a feel for both what you can expect to receive for your milk, and an idea of the cost of production.
WoolDrift has built relationships with a number of large and small processors who buy from us continuously.
Retail/wholesale processed sheep milk dairy products
With the rise of locavores – people interested in eating locally produced food that hasn’t travelled far to market – and the 100-mile market concept, you might be able to find and develop a local market for cheeses and other dairy products. You can wholesale these products to retailers, restaurants, or from your own farm gate. WoolDrift has discovered some exceptional nearby processors to produce our WoolDrift brand cheeses and other products. They are all small(ish) processors licensed in Ontario (artisanal and not industrial), who use only milk from WoolDrift. Most products arrive vacuum-packed, and we apply our own label and prices.
Seek out small-scale processors who take on this kind of project and find out their costs. Estimate the costs of labelling and advertising. Then determine what you can charge for your products to both retailers and from a farm-gate operation, and you’ll have an idea of what the business will yield. (Of course, you could even decide to take on the cheese making yourself!)
As you proceed, remember that this is a fairly new industry, and you need to be prepared to educate folks.