Dairy sheep are livestock animals valued for their milk-producing capabilities. Most sheep are kept for their wool or meat, while the different breeds of dairy sheep are raised for their highly nutritious milk. There are only around a dozen different breeds of these sheep, and not all are readily available in all areas of the world.
Breeds of sheep that have been specially created for their milk production include the British Milksheep and the Sarda, originally developed in Italy. The highest producing dairy sheep include the Polypay, Dorset, and Rideau Arcott breeds. Even though sheep were domesticated and used as a source of milk long before cows, some countries do not actively raise large numbers of dairy sheep. The United States only has a few breeds available to farmers, including the Lacaune, which was originally developed in France, and the East Friesian, which came to North America from Germany.
The lactation of dairy sheep lasts between 220 and 240 days. The East Friesian averages between 990 and 1,110 pounds (about 449 to 498 kg) of milk for each period. In comparison, breeds that have been traditionally raised for wool or meat produce only between 100 and 200 pounds (about 45 and 90 kg) of milk per cycle. The sheep are still milked by hand in many places, once or twice every day. Large sheep farms are often set up for milking much as a typical dairy cow farm is.
Although sheep produce less milk than cows and can be considered less efficient, their milk is higher in vitamins, calcium, potassium, and phosphorus content than cow's milk. Sheep milk has also been found to have a high content of conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), a type of fatty acid known as a cancer-fighting compound. The fat content in sheep's milk is contained in shorter chains and smaller molecules, making it easy for the human body to digest. Healthier but less readily available, sheep's milk is generally more expensive than cow's milk.
Dairy sheep require a large amount of fresh water, up to 3 gallons (about 11 liters) every day. Ewes do well when supplied with plenty of pasture, silage, and corn. Vaccinations help to keep the sheep, their young, and their milk healthy, and supplements can be given when pregnant ewes are approaching the birthing time. Most of the milk from dairy sheep is used in the production of cheese, yogurt, ice cream, or soap. Several popular cheeses are traditionally made with sheep's milk, including ricotta and feta.