Milk sheep are a unique and fun option for dairy livestock on the small homestead. We have had dairy cows, goats, and sheep here at Willow Creek Farm and each one has a unique set of pros and cons about keeping and milking them.
We enjoy the dairy sheep for several reasons. First, they are able to be a triple-purpose animal (milk, wool, and meat), which on a small farm means more efficient use of space. Secondly, they consume a lot less food than dairy cows and are a smaller, more manageable size. This, of course, means they produce less milk as well, but the amounts are adequate for family use. Third, they are only in milk for 6 months of the year. This could be seen to some people as a negative aspect, but for our family it is a benefit because we don’t have to milk through the long, cold winters. And sheep milk, unlike cow or goat milk, can be frozen and then once thawed can still be used to make cheeses and other dairy products. So, even though they only are being milked for 6 months, we are able to freeze milk to be used year-round for all our dairy needs.
With our busy little farm, this is also a benefit when I don’t have time to get around to cheese making. The final reason we like keeping dairy sheep is the milk. We enjoy the taste and it has a very high nutritional content. It is also the creamiest of the milks and creates more cheese per gallon of milk.
To help you get started with milk sheep on your homestead, we are going to share the basics through a three-part series. You'll be able to find them all on my full blog post list page.
- Part 1: Housing and Supplies
- Part 2: Basic Care
- Part 3: Lambing, Milking, and Dairy Products
If you decide that milk sheep would be a good option for your homestead, you are going to want to prepare your housing and supplies before you acquire your sheep.
Housing for Milk Sheep
Milk sheep need basically the same housing as any other sheep. Sheep are particularly vulnerable to predators. Good fencing, indoor night housing, and a well-trained Livestock Guardian Dog are all good ways to combat loss to predators. We have a lot of predators here in the Rockies of Colorado, so we use all three methods for our flock.
Our fencing is 5-foot-high wood rail fencing with 2-by-4-inch welded wire on it. We also use chicken wire on the bottom two feet of the fence and bury it out from the fence a foot to prevent predators from digging into the barnyard.
We close all of our livestock into the barn from dusk to dawn every day. And we have a wonderful Anatolian Shepherd that lives with our flock full-time. Sheep also need protection from extremes of heat, moisture, wind, and cold. A shelter that provides shade, and blocks wind, rain and snow, is necessary.
In addition to basic sheep housing needs, to keep milk sheep you will need lambing stalls (called jugs) and a milking area. Lambing jugs are small stalls that fit one sheep and her lamb comfortably. An average size for a jug would be 5-by-5 feet. Jugs give the ewes a place to lamb safely and help them bond well to their lambs. It also prevents other ewes in the flock from stealing lambs from the mother.
The number of jugs you need will depend on the size of your flock and how you time your breeding. We breed five to six females and have two jugs. At times, we have to set up a 3rd jug to accommodate our flock when the lambings are very close to each other. Jugs can be built out of many different things. Our permanent ones are built with wood and 4-by-4 metal cattle panels.
Each jug will need to have a feeder and waterer. The water container needs to be safe for a newborn lamb - you don’t want them to somehow end up in the water, chilled or drowned.
Because sheep are so short, it is ideal to have a raised stanchion with a head catch to use when milking your sheep. You can buy one, or they are pretty simple to build.
Ideally, you want to set up your stanchion in a cleaner area of the barn, not in a housing area. This will keep the milking process cleaner and reduce the chance for milk contamination.
Milking Supplies for Sheep
The supplies you need to have to milk and care for your milk sheep can range from very basic to extensive. The very basic supplies to get started are:
- Pail or Milk Machine
- Supplies to wash the udder
- Mesh strip cup
- Teat dip and cup
- Milk strainer and filters
- Glass jars with lids
It is possible to milk sheep by hand, however, the anatomy of their udder and teats is not generally ideal for hand-milking. They have very small teats that are located to the sides of their udders, just barely in front of their legs. If you are hoping to milk by hand you need to shop around to find a ewe (or ewes) with larger teats that are in a more downward position. You can hand-milk a ewe with the typical sheep udder conformation, but it takes longer and is harder than using a machine. If you decide to hand-milk, you will need a short bucket that can fit under the ewe to milk into. You can also milk directly into a jar if you are milking one side at a time and can hold the jar with the second hand.
We have some ewes that we hand-milk, and some that we machine-milk. We like the Dansha Farms milk machines. They are economical for a small farm and a small flock, and we have not had any problems with them. They offer a smaller teat cup that is ideal for sheep teat size. It is important to fully understand how to use the machine properly, or you can hurt your ewe.
Machine milker. Photo credit Kade Ludlam.
Whether you hand-milk, or machine-milk, you will need a way to wash the udder beforehand, as well as a mesh strip cup to check for mastitis, and a teat dip to treat the teats after milking (unless you are milk-sharing with the lamb immediately after milking). Your udder wash can be as simple as a small plastic container with warm water with a small squirt of dish soap in it and a rag, all the way to purchasing wipes specifically made for udder washing. Mesh strip cups, teat dip cups, and teat dip are all inexpensive and available at most farm supply stores.
Once you have milked the sheep, you will need to strain the milk and get it cooling as soon as possible. You will need a strainer, filters, and jars. Strainers and filters are available at dairy and livestock supply stores. We like to use glass canning jars, with the plastic lids that fit them. We have both quart and half-gallon jars.
After you have your housing and supplies together, you are ready to take the next step and bring home your milk sheep. Read the rest of the series for more:
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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