BILLINGS, Mont. — In the land of Cheddar, Swiss and American, it’s a little-known fact that the U.S. is the world’s leading importer of sheep milk cheeses: Manchego from Spain, Pecorino-Romano from Italy and Roquefort from France, to name a few.

Experts believe it’s time to ripen a domestic dairy sheep industry to compete with the flow of imported sheep milk cheeses — up to about 70 million pounds annually, more than half of all world trade. To this end, a spring webinar sponsored by the Let’s Grow Committee of the American Sheep Industry Association discussed the best breeds, selection, nutrition and management to produce sheep milk efficiently. It also examined some barriers to a successful domestic dairy sheep industry: the unstable sheep milk market, the small size of the industry, producer isolation and the lack of a national genetic improvement program.

The webinar was hosted by Jay Parsons of the Department of Agricultural Economics at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and presented by David Thomas, professor of sheep management and genetics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Mediterranean countries like Portugal, Spain, France, Italy, Greece, Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey, Lebanon, Syria, Israel and Iran have long-standing commercial sheep dairy industries, and many of them export millions of pounds of cheese, much of it to the U.S., annually. Although imports to the United States fell off with the economic downturn of 2008, imports of the luxury items have since rebounded.

Nevertheless, renewed interest in sheep cheese hasn’t spurred a homegrown dairy sheep industry. With close to no history of dairy sheep production in North America, the first commercial dairy sheep farms got going in the mid- to late 1980s with meat and wool sheep.

The first dairy sheep research started in 1984 at the University of Minnesota, followed a year later by the first licensed dairy sheep farm in New York. In 1987, the North American Dairy Sheep Association was founded. Farms started springing up primarily in southern Ontario, southern Quebec, Wisconsin, New York and Vermont so that by 2010, 167 farms were milking sheep in North America. Thomas estimates that figure is today up by about 100 farms.

But because North American sheep have historically been bred to produce wool and meat, not milk, production has remained low.

“It would be like establishing a dairy herd industry by milking Herefords and Angus,” Thomas said.

Although sheep produce a far smaller volume of milk than cows, it is richer in fat, solids and minerals, which makes it ideal for the cheese-making process. To wit: it takes 9 pounds of goat or cow milk but only 5 pounds of sheep milk to make a pound of cheese.

Still, a rough estimate puts U.S. sheep milk production at 9.4 million pounds, which translates into just under 2 million pounds of domestic cheese. The 53 million to 73 million pounds of imported cheese is a whopping 28 to 38 times the U.S. domestic production.

“This would seem to present a tremendous opportunity for domestic production,” Thomas said. “However, nothing is as simple as it might seem.”

The challenges are many, beginning with how few dairy sheep breeds are available in the U.S., basically only descendants of the East Friesians imported from Canada and Lacaunes, imported from the U.K. in the 1990s. Most dairy sheep are crossbreeds, produced with imported semen put on local ewes.

The milk production difference between non-dairy and dairy sheep: nearly double.

“You can’t start an economically viable dairy sheep operation without dairy sheep,” Thomas said.

Scaling up production by developing dairy herds would also help bring down the high retail prices of domestic sheep cheese and make it more competitive with European imports. Currently, low volume and high prices limit sales primarily to specialty stores rather than supermarkets.

Another challenge: many U.S. producers don’t use the requisite artificial lamb rearing systems that allow them to capture the early lactation milk. Successful producers need to raise their lambs from birth to 30 days on milk replacer, about 18 pounds of powder per weaned lamb. Lambs feed on demand from automatic milk replacer machines, which produce lambs with weights and mortality equal to those raised by their mothers.

Data from Spooner Agricultural Research Station shows innovation boosts productivity.

“The increase in milk production reflects the new technology and the increase in the proportion of dairy breeding in these ewes,” Thomas said.

More dairy breeds and better use of artificial lamb rearing systems means more milk, which needs to be captured by a sheep-specific milking machine, one with either a low or high pipeline or a rotary parlor.

Many milking systems are available through various manufacturers of cattle equipment, although the technique for milking sheep is different from that of milking cows. Cow milking machines operate at 45 to 60 pulsations per minute; sheep machines at 180 pulsations a minute.

“That’s really moving,” Thomas said.

Milk quality standards are the same for sheep milk as for cow milk. It can remain cooled in a bulk tank for up to 4 days and, if frozen quickly in commercial walk-in freezers, sheep milk can store for up to a year.

Would be sheep milk producers need to figure out how they’ll market their product: ship it to a processor, go in with a milk marketing cooperative or process it on the farm into farmstead sheep cheese.

“If you want to go into dairy sheep production, get with a processor,” Thomas said. “Ask what are they willing to pay.”

Thomas says the nascent industry could use more organized records on milk production and genetics. Currently, producers lack critical information on genetically superior stock because there’s no organized method of collecting data.

He encourages new and established producers to join the Dairy Sheep Association of North America, made up of dairy sheep producers, cheese-makers and industry supporters, including suppliers, educators and researchers. Established in 2002, DSANA produces newsletters and symposiums. More information can be found on its website at www.dsana.org.

The webinar “Is Sheep Milk Production in Your Future?“ is available at http://www.optimalag.net/sheepagriculture/category/webinars/.

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