Sheep milk: Milk production may have opportunity, challenges in U.S. markets
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, sheep milk accounts for one percent of milk that is produced globally.
During a webinar by the American Sheep Industry Association on March 14, University of Wisconsin-Madison Professor of Sheep Management and Genetics David Thomas led a discussion on the future of sheep milk production globally and in the U.S.
Thomas explained that the top countries in the production of sheep milk cheese are primarily in the Mediterranean basin, including Greece, Italy, Spain, France, Turkey and Portugal.
“Italy, far and away, is the biggest country in the world as far as production of sheep milk cheese for export, followed way behind by France and then Bulgaria. Way behind them is Greece, Spain and Romania,” said Thomas.
He noted that commercial milk sheep production has been occurring in these countries for centuries, and many popular cheeses are actually produced from sheep milk
“Many of us may recognize the names of some of these cheeses but may not realize that they are made from sheep’s milk,” commented Thomas.
One of the most famous sheep milk cheeses in the world is Roquefort, which is made in the Roquefort area of southern France.
“It’s 100 percent sheep milk cheese made from the milk from Lacaune sheep that are raised in that particular area,” he said.
Another common cheese is Pecorino-Romano, which is a hard cheese that is produced in Italy.
“We may oftentimes be eating it on our pizza when we think that it’s Parmesan. It’s imported in very large quantities into the U.S.,” said Thomas.
Manchego cheese from Spain is another iconic sheep milk cheese that can be found in the cheese case at a regular grocery store.
“It’s denoted by this waxy case that has a basket-weave appearance to it,” he commented.
Historically, North America started out in the wool industry before moving toward meat production.
“There’s no real history of dairy sheep production here,” explained Thomas.
The first commercial dairy sheep farms were established in the mid- to late-1980s and was done using the domestic sheep breeds that were in the area at that time.
“It was like starting the dairy industry with Herefords and Angus. We didn’t have the Holsteins of the sheep breeds,” said Thomas.
The last census by the North American Dairy Sheep Association found that there were 167 farms in North America that were milking sheep, but he noted that the numbers were considerably outdated.
“The North American Dairy Sheep Association is planning on redoing this census to get more up-to-date figures,” continued Thomas. “My guess is that we might have anywhere from 250 to 275 farms now.”
Throughout North America, he explained that there were higher concentrations of farms in 2010 in southern Ontario and Quebec, and Wisconsin led the U.S. for most production farms.
“We have about 19 licensed sheep dairies in Wisconsin,” he commented. “Then New York and New England follow, with sheep dairies spread throughout the rest of the U.S.”
When comparing milk composition of goats and cattle, Thomas noted that there are many similarities.
“It has about the same percent protein. It has about the same percent fat and has about the same percent total solids,” he said.
However, sheep milk is vastly different, having higher protein, fat and higher total solids.
These differences make sheep milk much more efficient for making cheese, he explained.
“Whereas it takes nine pounds of goat’s milk or cow’s milk to make a pound of cheese, it takes about five pounds of sheep’s milk to make a pound of cheese,” continued Thomas. “Sheep’s milk has almost twice the yield of cheese compared with either cow or goat.”
“If we assume now that rather than 100 farms, there’s 125 farms milking sheep in the U.S., if they’re averaging 150 ewes per farm and if they produce 500 pounds of milk in a lactation, we might be producing something under 10 million pounds of sheep milk in the U.S.,” said Thomas.
That would equate to approximately 2 million pounds of sheep milk cheese produced in the U.S. each year.
“Remember, we’re importing 53 to 73 million pounds, and we’re only producing maybe 2 million pounds,” he continued. “There’s 28 to 38 times as much sheep milk cheese imported as what’s produced here.”
While there may be tremendous opportunity for expansion of domestic production, Thomas cautioned producers to count the cost and consider potential negatives to production including lack of milk processors.
“Nothing is as simple as it might seem or maybe it isn’t quite as good as it might seem,” Thomas concluded.
Emilee Gibb is editor of Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.