By AMY TRINIDAD
Sheep Industry News Editor
(Dec. 1, 2012) When people think of sheep products, meat, wool and pelts are the first to come to mind; however, another sheep product that is in high demand from the public is sheep milk for making cheeses and yogurt. “The demand for sheep milk is up substantially,” says Bill Halligan, newly elected president of the Dairy Sheep Association of North America (DSANA) from Nebraska. “I think the demand could double for our products, but we aren’t able to double the supply.”
Finding ways to increase the amount of milk produced, whether through improved genetics or better animal health, was a main topic of DSANA’s annual symposium held in Dulles, Va., in October. In its 18th year, the symposium attracts dairy sheep producers and world-renowned cheese makers from Canada, Mexico and the United States. Echoed throughout the three-day event by attendees, the symposium provides critical connections among producers and cheese makers to a small, but growing industry.
Focus on Beginning Producers
The first day’s speakers were directed towards beginning producers with emphasis on dairy ewe nutrition. The day started with a presentation by Robert James, Ph.D., a professor of dairy nutrition and management at Virginia Tech University, titled “Dairy Cattle Nutrition – Possible Lessons for Dairy Sheep Producers.”
“Although there are difference between diary sheep and dairy cattle nutrition there are a remarkable number of similarities,” said James. “Unlike sheep selected for wool or meat, dairy sheep perform at a much higher level metabolically, which is similar to comparisons made between beef brood cows and the dairy cow.” James’ presentation focused on successful dairy nutrition via accurate ration formulation, mixing and delivery of the ration and consumption of the ration as intended by the nutritionist and the herd manager.
A presentation by Dan Morrical, Ph.D., from the department of animal science at Iowa State University, complemented the information provided by James focusing on breeding dairy ewes better for increased production and profit. “Feed costs account for half the cost of producing lamb, milk and wool. Therefore, cost control must always be foremost in the shepherd’s mind,” explained Morrical.
Morrical broke up his presentation between late gestation and lactation regarding nutritional requirements. He says that the goal of the late gestation nutrition program is to ensure adequate nutrient intake for strong vigorous lambs of moderate birth weight. In addition, ewes must enter lambing season in average to above average body condition to maximize milk production.
“Selenium, iodine and vitamin E are critical micro-nutrients for lamb survival and a smooth lambing season,” he explained.
As for lactation, this is the phase of production with the highest nutrient demand therefore protein and energy are both critical nutrients for milk production.
“Testing hays and controlling waste are two critical inputs for competitive milk production. Managing the flock to maximize drop rate is also critical as ewes giving birth to multiples will yield 10-percent more milk on the stanchion,” said Morrical, explaining the breeding season management is critical to the success of dairy sheep operations.
Since lambs are weaned from the ewes at an early age on sheep dairies, successfully raising lambs on milk replacer was an important topic for producers, one that was covered by Larry Van Roekel with Land O’Lakes. His presentation focused on choosing the right milk replacer based on research that has been done to prove the product works well for lambs; choosing the right milk feeding system based on facilities, size of operation, labor situation and performance objectives; and the successful implementation of good water and dry feed introduction which are the foundation to a good weaning systems as both help develop the rumen.
The importation of new sheep dairy genetics is crucial for the development of high-yielding milking ewes in the United States. Tom Clark, owner of Old Chatham Sheepherding Company in New York with his wife Nancy, relayed that the U.S. sheep dairy industry hasn’t been able to get new genetics for about 10 years.
“There is demand for semen, embryos or animals in this country,” says Clark, who wants to import new genetics from Europe. “We could double our milk production per animal if we could get better genetics which would lead to better economics for our dairies.”
To address this issue Peter Merrill, Ph.D., assistant director of animal imports for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Veterinary Services, was invited to attend the symposium. Regarding the producers’ concerns, Merrill replied saying that the administrator may consider case-by-case requests for imported commodities that enter commerce, but generally does not make an exception to established rules and policies for specific requests of this nature.
The first day finished with a session on creating artisanal cheeses with presentations from Sid Cook of Carr Valley Cheese Company, Dane Huebner of Grafton Village Cheese and Brenda Jenson of Hidden Springs Creamery.
The take-away message from Cook’s presentation is that quality milk starts on the farm. “Sanitation, milking practices, herd health all determine and affect milk quality and cheese making,” he said. “One must consistently test for milk quality, and continue improvements that are necessary to produce the best quality milk.”
Huebner’s message focused on the science of sheep cheese making specially mentioning the unique properties of sheep milk and the different stages the milk goes through to make cheese.
Jensen is not only a cheese maker but also a sheep producer who says their farming practices and sheep management can be directly seen in their milk. “We are constantly learning better flock management,” she said, relaying that her operation is continually growing and she is learning to make her current cheese better.
Focus on Animal Health
Eric Gordon, DVM, with The Ohio State University, spent the second morning of the symposium speaking about flock health and progressive wasting diseases such as Johnes, ovine progressive pneumonia, scrapie and caseous lymphadenitis. He relayed, “Maintaining a healthy ewe is vital to the success of any flock regardless of the production system or intended use.”
Gordon gave an overview of what sick animals look like, how diseases are spread and ways to prevent diseases. One area he focused on was mastitis in ewes. “Up to 35 percent of dairy sheep have mastitis,” he said. “It also reduces milk production 12 percent to 58 percent on one or both sides. The take home lesson regarding mastitis is look for it. If you don’t find it, you aren’t looking – you have an incentive to look.”
Explaining that dairy ewes may be at high risk of internal parasites due to stress of lactation and that dairy lambs are more susceptible because of early weaning, Susan Schoenian, Ph.D., University of Maryland Extension, suggested an integrated parasite management program for producers. “Effective parasite control usually requires an array of management practices that collectively serve to minimize the need for anthelmintic treatment. In fact, anthelmintic treatment should be seen as the last line of defense against worm parasites,” she said.
A few methods Schoenian suggested for producers to implement to decrease internal parasites are rotational grazing, multi-species grazing, grazing forages that disrupt parasite life cycles, grazing only to a certain plant height and housing sheep at night.
Summing up the symposium, Halligan said, “I think this is the best group of speakers we have had. They kept it simple for new people, yet had the technical knowledge for the experienced producers.”
For Nancy, she says the reason her and Tom come back to the symposium year after year is to reconnect with producers. “It’s a rejuvenation of your thinking and the material that is available.”
In fact, by connecting with a few Amish cattle producers that attended the symposium a few years ago, Tom and Nancy were able to help them add milking ewes to their farms. “By the end of the symposium they were hooked,” she said. “They bought sheep by the end of the conference and we committed to buying their milk.”
The Clarks have helped these new producers with animal production and are now buying milk from 10 Amish farmers for their creamery with plans to expand to 12 next year. “It’s been a huge economic benefit for their families,” Nancy says. “Others in their community see that they are doing well and we need the fresh milk to keep up with demand.”
To learn more about sheep dairies, visit the association’s website at www.dsana.org or plan to attend next year’s symposium which will be hosted in Ontario, Canada.
DSANA Farm Tours
The final day of the Dairy Sheep Association of North America’s symposium consisted of farm and dairy tours.
The first tour was to Everona Dairy located in the Piedmont region of Virginia. 2012 is the 14th year of business for this dairy operated by Dr. Pat Elliott and her family. They started with dairy sheep after buying a border collie puppy and realizing she needed some sheep for the dog. The farm now has 240 milkers that produce about 700 lambs per year.
The dairy has three general divisions – production of milk, production of cheese and marketing.
They sell their products all over the United States to distributors, wholesales, restaurants, wineries and at farmers markets. According to Brain Wentz, the farm manager, many of the White House chefs over the years have purchased their cheese at the White House farmers market. One of their more famous customers as of late has been Michelle Obama.
The second farm tour was to Shepherd Manor Creamery in Maryland. Michael and Colleen Histon built their milking and cheese-making facility while both employed off the farm. Neither grew up in agriculture but it was Michael’s dream of owning a dairy farm that brought on the idea.
In 2008 the couple purchased 14 milking ewes, they moved to their current farm in New Windsor, Md., in January 2010. 2012 marks their first full year of milk production and cheese making.
The couple says that the biggest lesson they have learned being new to the industry is the importance of high-quality feed for their milking ewes. They say there is a huge difference in the quantity of milk a ewe produces on high-quality protein feed vs. lower-quality