Home Precision Agriculture The Unique Struggle of Running a Sheep Dairy in America

The Unique Struggle of Running a Sheep Dairy in America


The challenges of small-scale farming are properly documented, particularly in a world grappling with points brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. Provide chains have been disrupted and shoppers now store for meals otherwise. Local weather change continues to take a toll.

“With fire and droughts, the cost of grains and hay is going up and we can’t keep raising the price of our cheese,” says Steven Learn, co-owner of Shepherd’s Means Farms in Minnesota.

On high of all that, there are distinctive challenges concerned in sheep dairying, particularly in america. It’s estimated that there are a little greater than 40,000 American dairy farms. Fewer than 200 of these are sheep dairies. Because of traditionally restricted genetics, a lack of infrastructure and the restricted milk manufacturing inherent to sheep, that quantity just isn’t more likely to develop anytime quickly. Even when a farm can determine its manufacturing, genetics and advertising and marketing, there’s a critical lack of institutional assist for the trade.

“There’s no one in the room saying, ‘What about the dairy sheep?’ I would bet that most of them aren’t aware there’s even such a thing as dairy sheep,” says Learn.

He cites assist packages obtainable to farmers that aren’t obtainable to producers and packages for producers that aren’t obtainable to farmers. Farms comparable to Shepherd’s Means, which increase and milk sheep after which make cheese from mentioned milk, are doubly disqualified.

“If the cow industry wanted to change that rule, it would be changed because it’s a meaningful constituency. That rule would never have been written for the cow industry,” says Learn.

“I hate sounding pessimistic, but, in some ways, raising dairy sheep is a losing battle in this country,” says Kendall Russell, proprietor and cheesemaker at Lark’s Meadow Farms in Rexburg, Idaho. “Compared to a cow or goat’s milk cheesemaker, you’re always behind.”

Why Select Sheep?

Jodi Ohlsen Learn, left, with sheep milk cheese and Steven Learn with their sheep. Images courtesy of Christine Hyatt and Robb Lengthy.

In 1994, Steven Learn (a dairy nutritionist) and Jodi Ohlsen Learn (a journalist) based Shepherd’s Means Farms in Nerstrand, Minnesota. They began making their flagship Friesago, a pure rind semi-aged sheep milk cheese, in 1998 and began successful awards for it in 2002.

In 2005, they skilled a devastating hearth. Their barn, in addition to 500 of their sheep and lambs inside it, went up in flames.

“People would call us crying,” says Learn. “They had this tremendously personal reaction to it.” The neighborhood rallied to assist them.

“I don’t mean to make light of this,” he continues, “but there are fires with hogs or cows frequently and people feel bad, of course, but they just have a different reaction to sheep. We seem to have a visceral connection to sheep and shepherding.”

In some ways, sheep can really feel like a straightforward promote for potential farmers. They require decrease capital prices to begin. They produce wool in addition to milk. It’s simpler to face out in native markets.

Liam Callahan, proprietor of Bellwether Farms. Photograph courtesy of Bellwether Farms.

Liam Callahan, proprietor of Bellwether Farms in Petaluma, California, finds that many of the farm’s prospects have tried plant-based milk merchandise and are available to sheep milk in search of one thing that tastes extra like cow milk. “They’re just not happy with the quality of those products, so they come to us,” he says. “Sheep milk tastes a lot like cow milk and gives products that are similar but more digestible.”

Sheep in america

Many of the good cheeses of the world are constructed from sheep milk, from the Pecorino household to Roquefort to Manchego. However the existence of these historic European cheeses doesn’t at all times translate to American consciousness.

“We still get people who don’t know you can milk a sheep,” says Callahan.

Very like with cows, the place Holsteins are higher for milking and Angus are higher for steaks, there are some sheep which can be higher for dairying, comparable to East Friesian or Lacaune (the breed accountable for Roquefort milk). Nonetheless, many of these breeds have solely lately grow to be obtainable in america.

Within the early 2000s, when Mad Cow illness was in the information, there was concern about a potential sheep variant of the deadly illness, explains Russell. There was a block across the import of sheep sperm, eggs or embryos into the US that solely was formally lifted in the previous 5 years. Callahan provides that, throughout that point, there would generally be transient home windows to carry in genetics from Canada, however these have been sporadic. The genetics for Lacaune sheep, thought of one of the best-performing breeds of dairy sheep, solely got here to this nation in 2017.

Even immediately, though not legally restricted, genetics might be tough to acquire. “Frankly,” says Callahan, “European producers have no incentive to let the goose that lays the golden egg leave Europe.” If American sheep dairies need multi-generational dairy animals, they have to breed them themselves.

“Everyone has to start from scratch,” he says.

Sheep Milk vs. Cow Milk

An assortment of Shepherd’s Means sheep milk cheeses.

A cow provides a mean of eight gallons of milk a day for the 305 days of her lactation cycle. Based on Callahan, with the standard US dairy sheep, “you’d be happy to get maybe three pounds [one-third of a gallon] a day of milk, often less.” Sheep do have extra fats and protein in their milk, which means you may get extra cheese per pound of milk, however that doesn’t make up for the dearth of quantity.

Stronger dairy sheep breeds can yield 4 to 6 kilos a day, and 6 months of lactation is seen as fairly good in america. Many European sheep breeds can milk for 10 months, which Bellwether has generally been capable of do.

These longer lactation durations, Callahan notes, primarily contain the identical quantity of work and solely a little extra feed, in comparison with an animal who’s not lactating. Extra milk per cycle is a “game changer,” he says, particularly the place being pregnant and giving start entail a well being danger for the animals.

“Even though you have some lower costs,” says Learn, “because sheep won’t eat as much as a cow, the fact they’re producing so little is really challenging.”

Ohlsen Learn continues, “We get much less milk per animal than cow or goat, but we don’t get more per pound for cheese in general. I think people may value sheep cheese more, but it doesn’t necessarily bring more value.” Together with making cheese and caring for his or her animals, there’s a large quantity of schooling to be achieved, on high of primary advertising and marketing duties comparable to sustaining a web site and/or social media accounts.

“Do other people want to work this hard for this little?” says Learn. “I don’t know.”

Small Scale by Design

 In 2019, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue below Donald Trump instructed farmers in Wisconsin: “In America, the big get bigger and the small go out.” If that’s the case, practically each sheep dairy in America is in bother.

The actuality is that sheep simply don’t make as a lot milk as cows or goats, and there aren’t any mega-sheep dairies in this nation. “Sheep cheese production is inherently going to be smaller-batch,” says Ohlsen Learn. “Every single input for us costs more.” She provides the instance of paper towels. If she buys paper towels, she’s shopping for a case. If a bigger manufacturing facility buys paper towels, they purchase a semi-load. “Every single input is a lower price for them.”

Callahan notes the American emphasis of large-scale producers in basic. This, he says, just isn’t solely a dangerous factor.

“We need people who can make a lot of food. We have a lot of people and we feed a lot of people outside the country,” he says. “But I think it’s pretty clear that small-scale production adds a richness to the community.”

Sheep farming additionally affords small farmers a chance to observe regenerative agriculture at a manageable scale, an vital motivator for Shepherd’s Means in Minnesota. “Our sheep are on pasture,” says Ohlsen Learn. “When they’re on pasture, they fertilize it and they help sustain a system that sequesters carbon. This leads to healthier soil and a cleaner water system.”

The Future for Sheep Dairies

Photograph courtesy of Bellwether Farms.

Callahan is cautiously optimistic in regards to the trade. He says the American sheep dairy trade is about 20 years behind our goat dairy trade, which grew in the previous 20 years from individuals not realizing that you would milk a goat to goat cheese being a salad staple.

“We’ve been approached by several European companies wanting to partner on things,” he says. “The US is the most important market for them now, as we’re one of the few dairy markets at retail that’s still growing at a decent rate. Europe’s been flat for some time.”

Will this be an uphill battle? Virtually definitely. There are packages in Europe to assist sheep dairying, says Callahan, “because it’s so fundamental to what they are about there. It’s their pride, their identity and what the communities historically have done.” He remembers visiting a sheep dairy in Tuscany, which was constructing a new milking parlor with cash from a authorities grant. (Authorities assist packages for dairy sheep don’t exist in this nation. Learn cites the North American Dairy Sheep Affiliation’s work to attempt to change that.)

It’s additionally a quickly-evolving market. Callahan explains that, a long time in the past, Bellwether bought its begin in the native farmers’ market scene. In the present day, although, every city has its personal farmers’ market, so the foot site visitors is extra unfold out. They don’t get the identical returns at particular person farmers’ markets that they as soon as did.

Ohlsen Learn says that the distribution market is frequently shifting, particularly post-COVID. There are regional distribution channels in addition to nationwide ones. Wholesale enterprise dried up when COVID hit, and determining new channels has been a fixed problem. Shepherd’s Means is at the moment testing out bottled milk to promote at retail and wholesale, hopefully to native espresso outlets.

“Those guys can afford it,” says Learn. “Their cost is so low, hopefully, they’ll pay a little more to offer sheep milk with their espresso.”

The Final of the First

Since Shepherd’s Means started in 1994, it has seen dozens of its farming friends depart the trade. “There is a continual turnover in a way that I have not seen in other industries,” says Learn. “We’re one of the last of the first.”

Finally, the individuals who do that do it as a result of they prefer it. They like sheep. They like feeding their communities. They really feel a sense of function. Ohlsen Learn notes the satisfaction each time she hears that the cheese she made is on a new restaurant menu or was served at a marriage ceremony. “The rewards are profound,” she says. “There’s a whole big circle connecting from when the sheep are out on pasture to when the cheese is on someone’s plate. I loved raising my family this way.”

“It’s a cool gig if you can get it,” says Learn. “There’s just no money in it.”


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