Dairy animals around the world: Sheep

Learn more about dairy animals around the world, starting with sheep.

Sheep standing in a milking parlor.
Sheep standing in a milking parlor.

In the U.S., milk production is generally synonymous with cows, but this is not always true in other parts of the world. Based on crop availability, climate, terrain, culture, religion, history and numerous other factors, other animals may be raised for milk production.

In a previous series from Michigan State University Extension, the history of the seven recognized dairy cattle breeds from the Purebred Dairy Cattle Association were discussed: Holstein, Jersey, Ayrshire, Guernsey, Brown Swiss, Milking Shorthorn and Red and White. This new series will explore dairy animals from around the world, starting with sheep.

Raising sheep for milk production is still a budding industry in the U.S. There are estimated to be roughly 100 commercial sheep dairies, with most located in the upper Midwest and the New England states, but a few are found as far west as California. Europe has a much stronger dairy sheep industry, with France and Spain leading the market. It is estimated there are more than 100 million sheep raised for milking purposes worldwide and approximately 1.3 percent of worldwide milk production (cattle account for 83 percent of milk production).

Sheep’s milk is a highly nutritious product that has higher concentrations of vitamins (A, B and E) and minerals (calcium, phosphorus, potassium and magnesium) that cow’s milk. Sheep’s milk also contains higher solids (fat and protein) than cow’s milk, making it excellent for cheese production. Sheep’s milk contains 7 percent fat and 5.98 percent protein, compared to 3.34 percent fat and 3.29 percent protein found in cow’s milk.

Sheep do not have the same high volume of milk production of cattle, but the milk sells for a significantly higher price, as much as $35-$65 per hundred weight compared to $14-$25 per hundred weight of cow’s milk. Specialized dairy sheep breeds can produce 400-1,100 pounds of milk in a 220-to-240-day lactation cycle compared to 22,775 pounds from dairy cattle in a 300-day lactation cycle.

Just like with cattle, there are sheep breeds that have selectively bred to specialize in milk production. The most common breeds in the U.S. are East Friesian and Lacaune. East Friesian are a German breed known for their high level of milk production. Lacaune are a French breed and the only breed of sheep used to produce Roquefort cheese. Other dairy breeds popular around the world include Sarda from Italy, Chios from Greece, British Milksheep from the U.K. and Awassi and Assaf from Israel.

Most sheep milk is used for cheese production, with some of the most popular products being Roquefort from France, Manchego from Spain, Pecorinco Romano from Italy and Feta from Greece. It takes about 4 pounds of sheep’s milk to make 1 pound of cheese because of the high fat and protein content and ratio, compared to 8-10 pounds of cow’s milk to make one pound of cheese. Sheep’s milk may also be frozen prior to make cheese without having a negative impact on cheese production or yield. Other products from sheep’s milk include yogurt and ice cream.

To learn more about dairy sheep, check out the following websites and resources:

MSU Extension and the Michigan 4-H Youth Development program help to create a community excited about STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics). 4-H STEM programming seeks to increase science literacy, introducing youth to the experiential learning process that helps them to build problem-solving, critical-thinking and decision-making skills. Youth who participate in 4-H STEM are better equipped with critical life skills necessary for future success.

To learn more about the positive impact of Michigan 4-H youth in STEM literacy programs and animal science programs, read our 2016 Impact Report: “Building Science Literacy and Future STEM Professionals.”

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