Saturday, April 27, 2013

Interviewing a sheep dairyist

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.


  1. Very interesting! Thank you for this post.
    I worked in the feed business in Oregon's Willamette Valley before retiring to Tennessee. There was a fellow near Scio, Oregon who was doing this and shipping the frozen milk to Wisconsin for cheese making.

  2. Very interesting.

    We have some Soya (or Soay as they're also called) sheep, and they also shed. They look more like goats than sheep, and are brown to black in color. They have horns like a Dahl sheep and are not as well domesticated as most breeds after many decades living feral in the Scottish Isles.

    We're developing a small herd to use for targeted grazing and for meat. So far so good.

    They're a lot smaller than other sheep and I've not heard of anyone successfully milking them, but your post encourages me to keep an open mind about it.

    Thanks, Patrice.

    How's Don feeling? Well, I hope. Please give him a hug from me.


  3. Gamey is not something I have ever noticed with any of the various breeds and cross breeds of sheep we raise. Of course we butcher them at slightly less than a year and in my opinion the various cuts are the best meat you will ever taste. The wife starts planning meals every time a new ram is born.

    The sheering can also be profitable with all the local clubs and classes that have been "cropping" up recently. The wool we get from our flock is gone almost as soon as we bag it up these days with no additional prep from us. A local club is buying it raw now which is a far cry from the bags of the stuff we used to throw away a few years ago.

    I have even used sheep wool as mulch from time to time we had so much surplus raw wool. It actually works great as a mulch ground cover but every predator for miles around (wild and domestic) will come and roll on it so I had to stop.

    Milking the ewes is an interesting concept that I never considered. I have done it when some of the ewe's utters got so large the lambs couldn't figure out how to get to them to feed. I even had to milk a ewe just a few weeks ago for that very reason but I never thought about saving the milk or making anything with it.

    1. For the cheese. I am setting here eating some of my Gouda cheese as I read the comments. The cheese has a richness that almost requires something bland to offset it. Like unsalted crackers but it is addictive like not being able to stop at just one piece of good chocolate. That is why I milk my Katahdin sheep.
      But we also make lotion out of our sheep's milk that softens the skin without leaving the skin oily. It helps if you use our sheep's milk soap also as it cleans the skin without leaving it dry. Our products are as healthy as we can make them. I saved out some milk so I could make some ice cream out of the sheep's milk. Now I need to find a receipt.

  4. Serious "cool" factor here. With a smattering of "Aww."

    On this subject, books or articles usually don't say much more than, "Oh yeah, you can milk sheep, too."

    There's so little information out there about this, I'm glad you're doing a piece. Can't wait to read it!

    Just Me

  5. The breed of sheep that you referred to as "Suffix" are, in fact, Suffolk(s).

    I've raised Texels, Montadales, Tunis, and Rambouillets. My preference is for the Tunis.

  6. that is so cool! thanks..a very interesting article!

  7. Great article! We got sheep 2 years ago, and we use the wool, and milk them too. I have Finnsheep for milk, but my Shetlands can be milked too. I have some right now in my morning coffee and it is the best! I have made sheep milk fudge also and my family says it is the best I have ever made. That is about 25 years of making fudge!
    Sheep are EASY to handle. They need a week or so of training, but once they know the routine, they don't forget. While milking my Shetland ewe this last week, my Finnsheep ewe was ready to come out and get on the milk stand for her turn at the grain bucket! She is raising triplets so I won't ask her to share milk for a couple more weeks, but she remembered from last year! I love my sheep, I love their wool and milk. I will contact this great sheep diary farm and see if they might like visitors. Looks like I can learn a lot from them! Thanks for the great article Patrice!
    Judy in Idaho

  8. Patrice,
    Thank you for covering an article on these beautiful animals. They are not encouraged enough to those who want animals that are excellent sources of both meat and milk.

    Consider that even in early Biblical accounts of scripture, sheep were very important to man for their ability to provide milk, meat, fiber for cloth making, and a sign of the owner's wealth of the time.

    Tell me, in the first picture you have posted here, to the right of the milking stauntion, is that a hydroponic Fodder system being used to feed the sheep?

    This is something I have been considering to generate fresh greens for livestock feeding, mostly to incorporate it as a supplement to grains,
    through our seasonal time of barren fields of available green in the winter. Even though they eat our dried hay that we put up and feed during winter, nothing beats the protein quality of fresh greens to boost the quality, increase the output volume, and affect the flavor of the milk.

    1. Yes, that's exactly what it is -- a hydroponic fodder system. I think it's barley grass.

      - Patrice

    2. Barley grain from a local farmer into grass in 8 days. I could use a better and faster way to cut up my mats though right now I am using a good knife. cutting it into bite sized pieces for my sheep. The mats are so thick they waste some trying to tear them apart. It is easier to tear apart if I use less grain but I am limited on space so push the limit on the amount of grain I use per tray. I could also shorten the time by soaking the grain but too much trouble to spread wet.

  9. pretty interesting although at the prices the cheese sells for pretty well prohibits me from wanting to try it, it's still pretty interesting. I was in Idaho around the McCall area doing some fishing and on the way back had to stop for a herd of sheep being taken down the dirt road to another pasture. I didn't realize that sheep herds were that big. They must of had close to a thousand sheep.

    1. Bob sheep are called a flock and each 100 is a band of sheep. so you saw a flock of 10 bands of sheep. There was a large Bask group north of Boise. Probably one of their flocks. You could also run into them in the national forests as they still walk in the woods with their sheep. With the wolves also their it could be reducing the total sheep owners or they are grouping together for protection. We have a pack of 12 chasing elk across the golf course 3 miles as the crow fly's but have not been hit yet.

  10. I have a bottle of his sheep milk lotion that I bought from him at the fair. It is as nice as he says.

    1. Thanks Paintemoose I plan to be at the North Idaho fair in Coeur d Alene again and how to see you there. We are also planning to try out the farmers market at Prairie and Hwy 95 Hayden, Id but I am still trying to decide on Saturday 8 AM to 1 PM or the Wednesday 4 PM to 6 PM. If the sales are good we will probably do both.

  11. Hey John, Nice write up! I have been to your Farm and I also Raise sheep on a smaller scale but I can sure appreciate all you, shari and Dale do. It is a lot of hard work. Your cheeses are awesome! Smoked gouda is great.I also use almost every day your wonderful Medicated Lotions.They have such a healing effect.It's great to see such love and dedication to the caring of your sheep.Keep up the good work!!

  12. Hi Patrice. Nice write up! I have a blog about the area at bitterrootloop.wordpress. Lets share info!

  13. Hi Patrice, very nice write up. I have a couple of blogs. One about the area: bitterrootloop.wordpress, and another about simple living: Let's keep in touch.