Cooperative Marketing of Sheep Milk is a project begun by the Wisconsin Sheep Dairy Cooperative to establish long term demand for sheep milk produced by its members. When established in 1996, WSDC had only one outlet for its member’s milk. In addition, the co-op was dependent upon the purchaser for supplying containers in which to ship the milk. The project sought to expand the market for sheep milk and to establish a degree of independence from the original purchaser.
The Wisconsin Sheep Dairy Cooperative consists of family farms from Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Nebraska. Also included is the University of Wisconsin Agricultural Research Station at Spooner. Sheep dairying offers financial viability to the owners of relatively small flocks (200-300 ewes) that are typical in the Midwest. With the milk check added to income from lamb, wool, and possibly breeding stock, sheep dairy producers aspire to sustain their families and their farm lifestyle.
To this end, improvements have been sought in livestock, equipment, animal husbandry, and markets. The goal of dairy sheep genetic selection is to increase production while maintaining high concentrations of milk solids. Equipment upgrades such as pipelines are increasingly chosen for milking operations because of their speed and ease of use. Intensive rotational grazing, utilized by many co-op members, improves pastures, reduces erosion, and enhances the “bouquet” of ewe’s milk. Marketing and more specifically, the development of a mature market for sheep milk is the work of Cooperative Marketing of Sheep Milk project.
PROJECT DESCRIPTION AND RESULTS
The goals of the Cooperative Marketing of Sheep Milk project were to: 1) secure dairy plant status for the Wisconsin Sheep Dairy Cooperative, 2) obtain autonomy through marketing milk in co-op owned milk handling pails and liners, 3) establish accounting and records generating and retrieval capacity.
The WSDC applied for and obtained two dairy plant licenses, one for each of its receiving stations. To satisfy state requirements, the co-op named and bonded a trustee. The licenses allowed the co-op to purchase milk from dairy producers and to sell it to various processors.
The co-op also purchased pails and liners in which to ship milk. Sufficient containers were distributed among the co-op members before the milking season to supply the first shipment of milk. Clean pails and new liners were exchanged for full containers at each milk pick-up.
The WSDC secretary/treasurer developed recordkeeping on his own computer with his own software, so a transfer of SARE funds was sought to contribute to market research for which the co-op had contracted.
A Wisconsin Agriculture Diversification and Development (ADD) grant provided major funding of a sheep milk market research project. SARE funds paid for 10% of the study. Dan Carter, Inc. conducted the market analysis with will be presented to the membership in December, 1998. This research project will play a major role in developing a strategic plan.
The University of Wisconsin Center for Cooperative awarded the WSDC a technical assistance grant for the strategic planning process. This process is expected to be completed prior to the start of the 1999 milking season.
The results of the Cooperative Marketing of Sheep Milk project are only beginning to be experienced. As was expected, the project has begun to build a solid market for sheep milk. The number of processors increased from one in 1997 to four in 1998. An American Cheese Society trade show provided much needed exposure to sheep dairying. From contacts made or strengthened there, WSDC expects to ship milk to at least two new processors in 1999.
As the results of the market research are studied and implemented, the co-op’s role will be more clearly indicated. The process will be complete, though not over, with the adoption by the co-op membership of a strategic plan. Actually, this will signal the real beginning of a viable sheep dairy industry in the United States.
The Wisconsin Sheep Dairy Cooperative communicated to four groups during this project. They were: its members, other cooperatives, cheese makers, and the general public. WSDC communicated the progress of the project to its members at the semi annual meetings and through board minutes, letter, and post cards. An article in the University of Wisconsin Center for Cooperatives’ newsletter “Working Together” announced the SARE grant. Co-op Vice-president, Dan Guertin, prepared and staffed a booth at the American Cheese Society Conference and Trade Show. Co-op members staffed a booth at Wisconsin Farm Progress Days and President, Jeff Foster, gave presentation on two days of the three day event.