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Milking sheep in Poland
Hand milking in Poland

Sheep milk
Sheep milk

Pregnant dairy ewes
Dairy ewes

Being milked
Rotary milking parlor

Milking stanchion
Being milked  

Fresco Tartufo
Sheep milk cheese

 "Cave" for aging cheese
Cave for aging cheese

    Got milk?

    Sheep have been raised for milk for thousands of years and were milked before cows. The world's commercial dairy sheep industry is concentrated in Europe and the countries on or near the Mediterranean Sea. Sheep dairying is growing in New Zealand. The dairy sheep industry is still in its infancy in the United States. There are only about 200 dairy sheep farms in the U.S. They are found mostly in New England and the Upper Midwest. There are several large commercial sheep dairies in New York and California. Each year, the Dairy Sheep Association of North America holds a conference.

    World Milk Production
    Percent of total
    Source: FAO of United Nations, 2017

    Highly nutritious
    Sheep milk is highly nutritious, richer in vitamins A, B, and E, calcium, phosphorus, potassium, and magnesium than cow's milk. It contains a higher proportion of short- and medium-chain fatty acids, which have recognized health benefits. For example, short-chain fatty acids have little effect on cholesterol levels in people. They make milk easier to digest.

    According to a German researcher, sheep milk has more conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) than the milk from pigs, horses, goats, cattle, and humans. CLA is a cancer-fighting, fat-reducing fat. The fat globules in sheep milk are smaller than the fat globules in cow's milk, making sheep milk more easily digested.

    Sheep milk
    Sheep milk can be frozen and stored until a sufficient quantity of milk is available to sell or make cheese. Freezing does not affect the cheese-making qualities of the milk.

    Sheep milk has a higher solids content than goat or cow milk. As a result, more cheese can be produced from a gallon (or liter) of sheep milk than a gallon (or liter) of goat or cow milk. Sheep milk yields 18 to 25 percent cheese, whereas goat and cow milk only yield 9 to 10 percent.

    While sheep usually produce less milk than goats and much less than cows, sheep milk sells for a significantly higher price per pound, almost four times the price of cow milk.

    Composition of different kinds of milk
    % solids
    % Fat
    % protein
    calcium (mg)
    calories (kcal)
    Source: The nutritional value of sheep milk by George F. W. Haenlein

    Most of the sheep milk produced in the world is made into cheese. Some of the most famous cheeses are made from sheep milk: Feta (Greece, Italy, and France), Ricotta and Pecorino Romano (Italy) and Roquefort (France). The U.S. is a large importer of sheep milk cheeses. Sheep milk is also made into yogurt and ice cream. It is not common common to drink (fluid) sheep milk.

    Dairy sheep breeds
    While lactating ewes of any breed can be milked, as with other species of livestock, it is better to milk the specialized dairy sheep breeds. Worldwide there are more than a dozen dairy sheep breeds, but only a few are available in the United States: East Friesian, Lacaune, and Awassi. Specialized dairy breeds produce 400 to 1,100 pounds of milk per lactation, whereas the milk production from conventional sheep breeds is only 100 to 200 pounds of milk per lactation. Non-dairy breeds also have shorter lactations.

    The East Friesian is the most common and productive breed of dairy sheep in the world. Their average production is 990 to 1,100 pounds per 220 to 240-day lactation. Two other highly productive breeds of dairy sheep are the fat-tailed Awassi and Assaf breeds from Israel. In France, the Lacaune is the breed of choice for making the country's famous Roquefort cheese.

    Worldwide, most sheep are milked seasonally by hand. This is because many dairy sheep are raised in remote areas where no cow could survive. Modern sheep dairies use sophisticated machinery for milking: milking parlors, pipelines, bulk tanks, etc. Ewes are milked once or twice per day.

    Management of dairy sheep
    In the United States, dairy ewes are managed in different ways. On some farms, ewes are not milked until their lambs have been weaned at 30 to 60 days of age. Another system allows lambs to suckle their lambs for 8 to 12 hours per day, after which time they are separated for the night and the ewes are milked the following morning. After the lambs are weaned at 28 to 30 days, the ewes are milked twice per day. Maximum milk yield is obtained when the lambs are removed from their dams within 24 hours of birth and raised on artificial milk replacer, as is common in cow and goat dairies.

    Cheese from the ewe, milk from the goat, butter from the cow . . . Spanish proverb.


Last updated 19-Apr-2021
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