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What are Dairy Sheep?

By Debra Durkee
Updated Mar 05, 2024
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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.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are dairy sheep and how do they differ from other sheep?

Dairy sheep are specialized breeds that are raised primarily for milk production, as opposed to meat or wool. They have been selectively bred to produce higher volumes of milk with greater nutritional content, particularly higher fat and protein levels, which are ideal for making cheese and yogurt. Breeds like the East Friesian and Lacaune are renowned for their superior milk yield and quality.

What is the average milk yield of a dairy sheep?

The average milk yield of a dairy sheep can vary significantly by breed, but some of the most productive breeds, like the East Friesian, can produce between 400 to 1,100 pounds of milk per lactation period. The lactation period typically lasts for about 220 to 240 days, according to the American Sheep Industry Association.

What products are commonly made from sheep's milk?

Sheep's milk is highly valued for its rich, creamy texture and high solids content, making it ideal for producing a variety of dairy products. Common items include cheeses such as Roquefort, Pecorino, and Feta, as well as yogurt, ice cream, and even some specialty butter. These products are often considered gourmet due to their distinctive flavors and textures.

How does the nutritional content of sheep's milk compare to cow's or goat's milk?

Sheep's milk is nutritionally superior to cow's and goat's milk in several aspects. It contains higher levels of essential nutrients such as calcium, vitamins A, B, and E, and has more protein and fat, which contribute to its rich taste and texture. According to the Dairy Sheep Association of North America, sheep's milk can have double the fat content of cow's milk, making it particularly beneficial for cheese production.

What are the environmental impacts of raising dairy sheep?

Raising dairy sheep can have a lower environmental impact compared to dairy cows. Sheep require less pasture and can graze on rougher terrain, reducing the need for deforestation and land clearing. They also produce less methane per liter of milk compared to cows, making them a more environmentally friendly option for small-scale sustainable farming practices.

How are dairy sheep typically raised and managed?

Dairy sheep are often raised in pasture-based systems, which allow them to graze on natural grasses, promoting animal welfare and reducing feed costs. They may also be supplemented with grains or silage to ensure adequate nutrition. Proper management includes regular milking, usually twice a day, and attentive care during lambing and lactation periods to maintain health and milk production.

AllThingsNature is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.

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