Low-Input Portable Sheep Dairying

Final Report for FNC94-076

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 1994: $5,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/1999
Matching Non-Federal Funds: $8,000.00
Region: North Central
State: Wisconsin
Project Coordinator:
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Project Information


This project established a semi-portable milking parlor and milk house to allow for the milking of sheep in the area they graze. A used bus was rebuilt to serve as the parlor and milk house. Portable, lightweight handling facilities were designed and fabricated.

The flock consists of 250 mature ewes and 100 yearlings or ewe lambs. The registered and commercial grade ewes include Freisan dairy sheep genetics form the University of WI Freisan Dairy Sheep Grant. The site consists of 200 leased acres of highly erodible land that had previously been grazed by beef and then vacant for over seven years due to low returns and difficulty of farming. Twenty to thirty head of beef cattle have been mixed with the sheep flock during the summer high grass growth months to enhance grazing conditions for lactating sheep.

Previous to receiving this grant training in Holistic Resource Management (HRM) principles was obtained. The HRM philosophy, in brief, consisted of setting productivity, quality of life and environmental goals. Actions taken need to meet all three goal criteria, optimizing each to the extent possible, rather than one maximized at the risk to the others. HRM decision making criteria drives both our on and off site work and resource commitments.

The goal was to demonstrate a low input sheep dairy, whereby, ewes will be lambed in May using pasture as the entire or primary feed and milked through September. Winter pasture would be stockpiled to reduce the need for harvested feeds, and ewes would be dry through the winter further reducing the need for purchased/harvested feeds. Rotational grazing would be utilized to manage pasture with resultant low cost high milk yields. Beef cattle were added to the flock to improve palatability of fast maturing grasses.

- A used school bus was obtained and set up for milking
- The construction was welded, bolted fabricated metal
- Marketing outreach was explored the summer and fall of 1995. Brochures and materials were developed. University WI confectionery recipe developed as a thesis project by food research student using certified milk from another producer. Booths at three food and craft festivals were manned in collaboration with three other sheep producers: wool, cheese, confectionery, meat. Joined the Sheep Dairy Coop as a founding member.
- Professional marketing study financed through the WI Development Grant was completed May, 1996.
- A small group of ewes (30) were milked the second summer (1996). The milk was frozen, stored and utilized for orphan and triplet/quad lambs.
- A larger group of ewes (50) were milked the third summer (1997). Milk was used for continued cheese and confectionery product development.
- A group of ewes (30) were milked for a two month period fourth summer (1998). The milk frozen and stored for orphan and triplet/quad lambs and development use. The decision not to attempt to become certified at this location was made due to cost of new well requirement.
- Alternative milk product, soap, was explored fall and winter (1998). A retail location for commissioned sales located on tourist tour bus route, and at three Bed and Breakfast lodges in area.
- Preparation for manufacturing of 3 lines of handmade soaps, packaging, shipment. Preparation for milking a small group of ewes summer of 1999 as required to meet production needs for spring 2000 and orphan and triplet/quad lambs.

Facilities: The front half of the bus is used as a milk house with freezer, sink, storage cupboards and automatic milking equipment. The sheep are milked in the back half on a platform running along the base of the bus windows, on both sides. The floor is concrete with two drains. A partition and door separate the font and back half. The sheep enter though the back of the bus via a stepped waiting ramp that is as wide as the bus and will hold 24 ewes (40 ewes total, including the inside chute and milking platforms). The sheep enter single file though openings at each side of the bus. This divides the flow into two chutes that run along each row of windows. Three to four ewes are milked at one time at a milking platform at the end of the chute. The ewes then exit through an adapted bus window down single file ramps. As one group exit and refills the platform, the other side it milked.

A local metal fabricator was used. All ramps are removable and portable, loading on the bus, or folding against the side of the bus for transportation. Installation and electrical was done on site. Handling layout is still under development. Jack Severson, WI inspector in 1995, suggested a concrete floor for sanitation reasons. After checking the additional weight factor against design load of the bus it was determined the weight would be insignificant (2,000 pounds of floor compared to 66 adult passenger capacity of the bus). We found that concrete floors are standard in Greyhound buses to increase road stability. The floor has been stable over 3 field moves on rough terrain.

The decision was made not to wean at the customary 30 days. This lowered the quantity of milk obtained, but allowed for much needed flexibility as full time off site employment was maintained. The lambs allowed for once a day milking and occasional missed milking days. As we were not certified the quantity of milk was not an issue. Testing the feasibility of the system was the first priority. The lambs stayed with the moms through the milking process or waited in a creep area at their choice. A low jump-over divider was used to prevent lambs from easily following the mature group through a gate and onto the holding ramp, but lambs that jumped over with their moms were not removed from the group. This caused easier handling than force separation at the time of milking. Consideration was made to remove the lambs a number of hours before milking to allow for the ewe’s bag to become full. Due to time limitations this was not done and occasionally lambs were observed suckling off and on through the waiting period. This was frequent during the first month, but by the second month the lambs became nonchalant about the process and tended to wait in the creep for the ewe’s return.

The amount of milk recorded ranged between .75 to 1.5 pounds per day per ewe. The average was slightly over 1 pound during the first two months of lactation. The amount dropped to .8 pounds the third month at which time the ewes were milked less frequently and finally returned to pasture with their lambs still at their side and creep available. No pasture lambs, only lambs form the milking group, had access to the creep.

The second summer additional moms were added to the first year’s experienced mothers. Eight of the first year’s mothers dropped out the second year because: 4 had triplets, 2 behavior problems the first year, and 2 were thin.

Two moms with triplets were kept in the group because of high milk production the first year, easy behavior management, and the creep supplementation. The amount of milk produced was not recorded as accurately as the first year due to outside work requirements. Milking was begun within ten to fourteen days from birth and stopped at the end of two months. As the ewes had their lambs at their side irregular milking did not result in a problem for the ewes. The lambs appeared to take up the excess milk produced. No mastitis resulted either year.

The learning curve the first year was long for both ewes and producer. The ewes were reluctant to enter into a darkened area, even with both natural and artificial lighting available within the bus. Time efficiency, though improved the second year, has remained lower than that quoted by other producers milking in more standard facilities. The best time obtained was 1 minute per ewe across a group of 30 ewes. The average time for a group of 30 ewes was 45 minutes. Additional ewes caused handling delays that prolonged the milking period. Goats were used as lead animals and were much more adept at entering and exiting the facilities. It proved difficult to fence the goats away form the facilities during non-milking periods. Frequently, they would exit the bus and jump back onto the load ramp to run through again. As the sheep and goat milk could no be mixed the goats (5) were milked by hand. The facilities proved ideal for a small goat dairy.

It is not known if early exposure to the routine will make the milking process easier for the daughters of milking ewes. The numbers of daughters that were later milked was not high due to selection process being limited to mature ewes (at least two year old) with twins. Multiple birth moms were chosen to take advantage of the extra milk generally available to raise multiple lambs. The summer of 1999 will be the first season that my have a number of daughters available milking.

The flow into the bus will be changed for the summer of 1999 if entering is again perceived as a bottleneck with a larger holding area added. The experienced milking moms may provide a shorter learning curve for any new moms. The goats have been relocated at another farm with dairy goats because of time limitations to milk both species. If needed, the leader goats will again be utilized to shorten the return to milking this summer. Their added confusion during the milking process will probably result in their use for a few days only, or not at all. The before and after handling time of the group has become minimal as the ewes congregate at the expected milking time eager for a delayed grain reward. The group is fed approximately 1 pound each of a 16% soy and corn mix at the end of the process, not during milking, and then disperse to the field through an open gate at their own discretion.

The ability of the person milking to remain in one position and milk both platforms with minimal repositioning of stool has proven very effective when compared to other milking layouts.

Maintaining the incoming flow of ewes has caused problems as the ewe number increases over 30. Additional ewes have caused confusion and more reluctance to flow in an orderly manner through the facilities. This could be due to the addition of ewes that are less experienced with the process causing disruption, the limited outside ramp size and to the handler’s lack of energy to milk efficiently for over an hour. For a low quantity of ewes and high volume milk the facilities would be effective.

Ongoing Development:
- The Venture Research Corporation marketing plan suggested using a farm-gate retail selling approach. This will be experimented with using a Gypsy wagon designed as a point of sales for use at area apple orchards and farmer markets for milk, meat and craft products fall of 1999. Other producer’s food and craft products will be included.
- Soap prototypes will be marketed in one Minnesota tourist shop and three Bread and Breakfast Inns. Milk has been used since ancient times as a natural cleanser. The richness and uniqueness of sheep milk may provide a marketing advantage in tourist shops. The production of soap requires 9 oz. of milk per 64 oz. batch and there are no certification requirements.
- Full time milking of a high quantity of ewes will wait for dairy genetics to significantly increase milk volume and for marketing issues to be resolved. Selling milk as a commodity to private cheese factories does not meet our profitability goals. Having a custom cheese produced by a reputable cheese factory would be feasible if marketing issues were resolved. Marketing our soap and other producer’s cheese and craft items would provide data to the cost effectiveness of producing our own cheese.

- Cristine Cobb, Thesis research student, University of Wisconsin-Stout, Menomonie. Confectionery recipes
- Dave Omen, Extension service, management support
- Dave Thomas, University of Wisconsin-Madison, dairy genetics support through grant to WI Sheep milk producers
- Doug Gunncik, Holistic Research Management and Grazing, product development consultant.
- Hal Kohler, one of the WI first sheep milk and cheese producers. Genetics and food festival support
- Jackie Prosser, Brochure are work, and layout design
- Jack Severson, WI dairy inspector, milking-bus design support and certification requirements.
- Janet McNally, Sheep and Beef Grazing and feed consultant, craft festival support.
- Marie Harsh, sheep and goat dairy producer. Milking, sanitation, management support
- Sheep Dairy Coop. exploration selling sheep milk as a commodity to cheese producers
- Steve Wickenhaueser, owner 300 cow dairy. Management feed and milking support
- University WI-Stout, Menomonie, Media Class Students, photography. WI Business Development marketing research funding via Venture Research Corp.

Chicago, IL – food festival. Hal Kohler, Cheese and confectionery, September 1995
Duluth, MN – food festival, Hal Kohler Cheese and confectionery, September 1995
Forest Lake, MN – food and craft festival, Janet McNally lamb, cheese, confectionery, wool October 1995
Brochures and photography
Future: setting up web site with pictures.


Participation Summary
Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.