The Kellers would like to demonstrate the viability of a seasonal, grass-based sheep dairy in a high-elevation climate.
The U.S. sheep industry is in a serious state of decline with marginal lamb prices and a stagnant wool market. Many are leaving the industry. But those with adequate feed could generate a third income from sheep milk, which can be economically beneficial at a low cost.
Steve and Carolyn Keller are full-time ranchers with 130 head of cows and 100 head of ewes. They plan to milk beginning in the spring after lambs are weaned and the young spring grass is at its peak, negating the need for supplemental feed. The ewes will be milked for 90 to 100 days. The milk will be frozen until enough is accumulated for shipping.
The milking parlor will be housed in an existing building, renovated with upgraded wiring, plumbing, a cement floor and drain. A walk-in freezer and milking equipment will be acquired.
The Kellers completed their sheep-milking facility in late June 2000. Before being inspected and licensed, they test milked 16 sheep twice a day for about a month to ensure design integrity and equipment function. After receiving approval July 13, 2000, by the Colorado Health Department, they put around 120 ewes through the system, dismissing those with mastitis, testy dispositions or dry on one or both sides (because it was late in the sheep’s lactation).
Of the 120 ewes, about two-thirds were milked for an extended time. Most of the Finn/Rambouillet/East Freisian cross ewes adapted well and loved coming in after two or three milkings. Some even had to be coaxed to leave the milking area. The percentage was expected to be higher in 2001 as lambs will be taken off after 30 days.
Machine milked, each ewe produced 1 to 1 1/2 pounds of milk a day into a 5-gallon stainless steel bucket. The milk was tested for mastitis, strained and put into a plastic bag, which was cooled 12 to 24 hours in a bulk tank filled with ice water then placed in the freezer to sell to cheesemakers. Most of the milk in the first year was sold to a cheesemaker near Santa Fe who milks goats and makes goat cheese. She used the milk to make straight sheep cheese and sheep/goat cheeses.
Despite having spent more on the project than expected – combined SARE and personal contributions totaled $18,400 – the Kellers say their project has been a success.
“It can be replicated by other producers who are looking for an alternative to the usual incomes available from a sheep enterprise,” they say in their report. “We are still learning but will be more than happy to share what we’ve done with anyone interested in this project.”
The sheep milk project can be replicated by other sheep producers looking for alternatives to the usual incomes from a sheep enterprise.
FARMER ADOPTION AND DIRECT IMPACT
The Kellers entertained one call from a man who wanted to set up his own sheep dairy and was seeking ideas. They have visited at length with several local sheep producers who have expressed strong interest in the project. In addition, they have educated several cheesemakers about the potential for cheese made from sheep’s milk, including a cheesemaker working with cows’ milk near Ft. Collins, Colo., and another who makes goat cheese near Trinidad, Colo.
FUTURE RECOMMENDATIONS OR NEW HYPOTHESES
“The results have been exciting,” say the Kellers, “and we’re looking forward to the 2001 milking season.”
DISSEMINATION OF FINDINGS
More than 25 people have visited the Kellers’ sheep dairy, some coming more than once and one coming to help milk on several occasions. The project has also been featured in several newspaper accounts, and the Kellers made a presentation on their sheep dairy during the Southern Rocky Mountain Forage and Livestock Conference.