In my previous two posts, I covered preparing for your milk sheep, how to choose and buy milk sheep, and the basic care and breeding of them. After you have your milk sheep on your homestead and have bred them, you can get to the fun part, the purpose that you bought them for: milk!
Lambing season is an exciting and fun time. Seeing new life come into the world is a miracle, no matter how many times you have seen it. But it can also be stressful if you have ewes that have complications. Be sure to prepare a lambing kit ahead of time with the supplies you need in case of complications. Ewes don’t take very long to give birth, so if you have a first-time mother that has been obviously working at it for more than two hours it is time to call the vet. And if it is an experienced mother, you should call after only one hour of obvious labor with no progress. Losing the baby, or the mother, or both because you waited too long to get help is a tragedy you don’t want to experience.
Once the lambs are born, give the mother space and chance to lick them off and bond with them. Keep an eye on the situation, but give them space. If the ewe or lambs are having issues, then you can intervene and help out. The most common problem is chilled lambs and you will need to help get the lamb(s) dry and warm. A chilled lamb will be weak and unable to nurse. The lamb should be up and nursing within 30 to 60 minutes of birth. It is good to check on the new lambs frequently to be sure they are eating often and strengthening.
During the first few days, the lambs will go through a cycle of eating, playing and bouncing around a bit, then napping. We like to leave our lambs in the jug (small lambing stall) with their mothers for at least three days. This gives us an opportunity to keep a close eye on them and catch any problems early. It also gives the ewe and lambs a chance to bond well before being introduced back into the flock.
Milking a Sheep
It is important to train your ewe to the stanchion well before she lambs. There are many ways to handle when to start milking after lambing, and you can either milk-share with the lamb, or remove the lamb(s) and milk twice-a-day. Some people don’t milk until after an early weaning, which they do at a month of age. Others remove the lambs and start right away. And there are all sorts of options in between.
At our farm, we milk-share with our lambs. We begin milking the ewe about 5 days after lambing (sooner if she only had a single lamb), while leaving the lambs with her 24 hours a day. We generally begin removing the lamb(s) from the mother for short periods over night at about a week of age. We milk once a day in the morning. We slowly increase the amount of time that they are apart and by about three weeks of age the lamb is away from the ewe for 12 hours over night, we milk in the morning, and then they are back together for 12 hours during the day.
The benefits of milk-sharing are that the sheep have a more natural experience, the lambs grow better, we only have to commit to once-a-day milking, and, if needed, the lamb can be left with the mother and the milking skipped. No matter what schedule you are on, it is important to milk within 30 minutes of the same time each day or you will have a drop in milk production.
Feed the ewes their grain while they are in the stanchion being milked. It doesn’t take long for them to get the routine down, and at our farm we are able to open the stall door and have them walk over and jump right onto the stanchion when it is milking time. First, you must get the udder and teats thoroughly clean and look for any signs of mastitis. The udder should not be hot, overly engorged, nor hard. You should also look for sores or wounds on the udder and teats.
Some of our ewes are hand-milked and for some we use the Dansha Farms Brute milking machine. Each ewe is different and we do what works best for her anatomy as well as her temperament and preferences. The milking machine is cleaner and faster, but some ewes don’t do as well with it as with hand-milking. Plus, the experience of hand-milking can be a very satisfying one. If you hand-milk, it is often easiest to reach in from behind the leg, as opposed to from the side as one would do with a goat or cow.
Milking takes approximately 10-20 minutes per ewe. Variations in the size of the teat orifice, as well as whether they are being hand-milked or machine-milked, can affect how long it takes. Also, ewes that are nervous in the stanchion or new to it can take a lot longer because they don’t let down well. It is important to be sure the ewe is getting completely empty when you milk or your milk production will drop. Milk-sharing with a lamb helps prevent this since the lamb will try to nurse as soon as you are finished milking and thus will empty her out. If you are new to milking, or your ewe is, I definitely suggest milk-sharing until you get the hang of it, so you don’t lose too much production to your inexperience.
Immediately After Milking
After milking, you need to get the milk strained and cooling as quickly as possible. We pour the milk through a strainer with a disposable filter into glass canning jars.
Then we put a lid on it, date the lid, and put it immediately into the refrigerator to cool. It is important to get it chilling as quickly as possible.
Using Sheep’s Milk
You will find that sheep’s milk is very creamy. It is more like half-and-half than whole milk from the store. We have used the whole sheep’s milk to replace cream in recipes with great success. Sheep’s milk is known for making amazing ice cream, just from the whole milk. We enjoy using the milk raw, but also find it great for making a multitude of dairy products. If you find that your milk has an off-flavor then you need to first be sure that you are checking the milk carefully through a strip cup for signs of mastitis. Secondly, assess the cleanliness of your milking procedure, as well as how quickly you are getting it strained and cooled. Also, flavor can vary based on what you are feeding, and it can also vary from ewe to ewe. We find that some of our ewe’s milk is sweeter than others.
The cream in the milk does not separate as easily as cow’s milk, however, we have found that if we let the milk sit for 48 hours, we are able to use a small ladle and skim off quite a bit of cream. This cream can be used to make butter, which turns out very white. Sheep’s milk is also great for making yogurt, sour cream, and kefir.
Because of the high butterfat content in sheep’s milk, it is excellent for making cheese and will yield more cheese per pound of milk than cow and goat’s milk do. We make ours into both soft and hard, aged cheeses. Some cheese making books give details about sheep’s milk and even some recommendations of how to handle it differently as you are making your dairy products. Our favorite cheese making book is Home Cheese Making by Ricki Carroll (available in the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store).
Keeping milk sheep on the homestead is a fun and rewarding endeavor. I have touched on the basics to help you get started, but of course there is so much more to it. Do your research, learn as you go, and have fun.
Kat Ludlam is a high-altitude homesteader and owner of Willow Creek Farm in the Colorado Rockies, where she breeds landrace sheep, chickens, and crops accustomed to elevation. Check out Kat’s custom fiber-processing business, Willow Creek Fiber Mill, and read all of Kat’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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