On Wednesday, I had a very interesting experience. I interviewed a sheep dairyist at a facility called Homestead Farm.
The reason behind this interview is that Backwoods Home Magazine asked me to write a comprehensive article on home dairying. Cow and goat milk is pretty obvious, but sheep milk? When I learned there was a sheep dairy within reasonable driving distance, I decided to learn a little more about this resource. What a gem of an opportunity.
The farm is run by John Cady, along with his business partner Shari Pratt and her husband Dale Pratt, who is a certified Master Cheesemaker.
John raises Katahdin sheep, a breed that doesn't need shearing because they shed. In other words, they have fur instead of wool.
Like goats, sheep are most comfortable to milk on an elevated stand.
A sheep's udder is decent-sized relative to the size of the animal -- but the teats are so small! How can you grab and milk a teat that size?
The answer is to use an EZ Milker, a handheld suction device that is pumped to create a vacuum to start the milk flowing. After a few pumps the milk runs out on its own. The advantage of this system is it keeps the milk squeaky clean.
Unlike cows, where milk is measured in gallons; or goats, where milk is measured in quarts... sheep milk is measured in ounces.
Sheep's milk has small fat molecules which won't separate the cream from the milk, so making butter isn't possible without a culture. Which begs the question, why milk sheep?
The answer? Cheese!
Sheep's milk is wonderful for lactose-intolerant people (better than goat's milk, in fact), and makes superb ice cream and yogurt. But the most princely product is cheese. Sheep-milk cheese is considered a gourmet item and is sold in Costco for upwards of $40/lb.
One gallon of milk makes about 1.4 lbs. of cheese. 100 lbs. of milk makes approximately eight 2.5 lb. wheels of cheese. It takes about a week to get 100 lbs. of milk. The milk is frozen in plastic bags (freezing does not affect the milk's quality, again because of the small fat molecules).
These is the cheese press.
Here's raw cheese curing in a salt brine.
The cheese is then waxed and aged. This outfit makes mostly gouda (including smoked gouda), but also bleu cheese, ricotta, feta, etc. These cheeses sell for $40/lb and up. They also make specialty custom cheese to order, such as habanero, cumin, garlic/herb, horseradish, jalapeno, etc. These custom cheeses cost $65 - $80/lb.
The milk they don't use for cheese gets made into soap and skin care products. They also sell cuts of meat. The meat from Katahdin sheep is much less "gamey" than Suffolk (the usual meat breed in the U.S.), so demand is high.
They sell their cheese at farmer's markets and fairs. NOW raising and milking sheep starts to make a lot more economic sense!
John Cady has over 100 ewes for sale. Unregistered sheep sell for $200-250 each, though registered sheep start much higher. He can get people started with a backyard flock for about $650-750. John says Katahdin sheep are disease resistant, parasite resistant, have fewer hoof problems, don't require shearing, and they have a brain.
Besides, they're lovely.