Learn everything you need to know about raising productive sheep, whether it’s two or a whole flock.
Cover Courtesy Storey Publishing
The Backyard Sheep (Storey Publishing, 2013) by Sue Weaver is the go-to reference for everything sheep. From choosing the right breed to making ewe cheese, anyone can learn the basics and benefits of keeping sheep. In this excerpt, taken from chapter 12 “Got Milk?,” learn how milking sheep provides vitamin-rich milk, gourmet cheeses and other yummy dairy products.
You can purchase this book from the Mother Earth Living store: The Backyard Sheep.
Why Milk Sheep?
Why milk a ewe? For the cheese and the yogurt and the ice cream! Sheep milk has considerably higher solids content than goat or cow milk has, so it makes a lot more cheese per gallon. Sheep milk has nearly twice the butterfat of cow milk; it’s also richer in vitamins A, B, and E, calcium, phosphorus, potassium, and magnesium.
Rich sheep-milk cheeses and yogurt are an epicurean delight and you can make them yourself. Cheese making is an art you can learn from books. I recommend Home Cheese Making: Recipes for 75 Delicious Cheeses by Ricki Carroll and The Home Creamery by Kathy Farrell-Kingsley. They’re the best!
Some of the world’s great cheeses are crafted of sheep milk, so you can taste them before you commit. Visit your favorite gourmet cheese store and sample some of the cheeses from the following countries. Yum!
Bulgaria: Katschkawalj, Sirene
France: Roquefort, Perail, Abbaye de Belloc, Ossau-Iraty, Broccio
Greece: Feta (can also be made of goat or cow milk), Kefalotiri, Myzithra, Kaseri Manouri
Italy: Pecorino Romano, Pecorino Sardo, Pecorino Toscano, Fiore Sardo, and Canestro Pugliese
Portugal: Serra de Estrala
Romania: Brinza, Teleme
Spain: Manchego, Zamorano, Roncal, Castellano, Idiazabal, Burgos, Villalon
Turkey: Beyaz Peynir, Mihalic Peynir
More from The Backyard Sheep
• Soft Citrus Sheep Cheese recipe
Milking isn’t for everyone. Make sure you’re up to it before you commit to milking twice a day at the same time of day, day after day, week after week, with no respite until you quit or your ewe’s lactation ends. If your ewe is a low producer or she’s nursing lambs, once a day milking is doable but less productive. Finding a farm sitter willing to milk sheep is a formidable task. If you milk, you had better be a homebody or willing to schedule day trips and vacations around milking time.
Milking sheep require proper feed, and that means grain. Talk to your County Extension agent or an experienced sheep milker in your locale to formulate a nourishing diet, or feed alfalfa hay and commercially bagged sheep specific grain, following the instructions on the bag.
Milking should take place in an area separate from your sheep’s living quarters. A separate milking area is easier to keep tidy and prevents bedding, airborne dust, and flies from finding their way to the milk pail.
You’ll probably want a sturdy, goat-style milking stand. Whether you buy or build one, keep in mind that you’ll be milking from behind instead of from the side as is done when milking a goat, so there should be enough room behind the ewe for you to sit on the milking platform or it should be short enough for you to get close while sitting on a separate milking stool. Also, unless your milking stand is very low to the ground, consider adding a ramp for your ewe to climb to the milking platform. Sheep aren’t as agile as goats, so a ramp is easier for the ewe and it gives you a sturdy place to sit.
Alternatively, secure your ewe with a halter or collar and then squat or sit cross-legged on the ground behind her to milk her. It’s worked for thousands of years!
In addition to a milking stand, you’ll need the following:
• A small stainless steel pail or bowl to milk into (plastic receptacles can’t be properly sanitized)
• A strip cup or dark-colored bowl
• Teat cleanser or unscented baby wipes
• Teat dip or an aerosol product such as Fight Bac
• A strainer that can hold 6 1/2-inch (16.5 cm) milk filters
• A funnel
• Glass containers to store milk in the refrigerator
You also need plenty of soap and hot water to keep everything squeaky clean. Cleanliness is the key to great-tasting milk.
In an ideal world you’d milk your ewe at 12-hour intervals. Because that isn’t always possible, however, allow as much time between morning and evening milkings as you can. At the appointed hour, scrub your hands, gather your pail and strip cup or dark-colored bowl, and head to the barn. Measure your ewe’s grain ration and deposit it in the grain cup on your milking stand, then lead her to the milking area. She’ll climb up on the stand and you’ll fasten her neck in the stanchion.
1. Wipe off her belly and udder to dislodge loose dirt and bedding that you don’t want to find in the milk pail. Place your milking stool behind the ewe.
2. Clean her teats and udder with a paper towel dipped in teat cleanser and wrung nearly dry, or use an unscented baby wipe.
3. Massage the udder for 30 seconds to facilitate milk letdown.
4. Aim several squirts of milk from each teat into the strip cup or bowl, one at a time, to test for abnormalities. Most bacteria is contained in the first few squirts, so these should be discarded in any case.
5. Place your milking container behind, not under, the ewe. Milk with both hands; or if you prefer, hold the container in one hand and milk with the other, alternating hands.
6. When you’re finished, dip the end of each teat in teat dip or spritz them with Fight Bac, making certain the orifice (the opening in each teat) is coated.
7. Allow the ewe to hop down, take her back to the rest of your flock, and then grab your milking container and head to the kitchen. If you’re milking more than one ewe, pour the milk into a communal stainless steel container, cover it (a hand towel works nicely), and proceed to the next ewe.
Excerpted from The Backyard Sheep © 2013 by Sue Weaver, illustrations © Elara Tanguy used with permission from Storey Publishing. Buy this book from our store: The Backyard Sheep.