Getting Started With Milk Sheep on the Homestead, Part 2: Choosing and Caring for Sheep

Reader Contribution by Kat Ludlam and Willow Creek Farm
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East Friesian cross milk sheep breed

In Part 1 of this series, we discussed getting your housing and supplies together for keeping milk sheep. Once that is done, you are ready to bring home your flock.

Choosing and Buying Sheep for Milking

There are several different breeds of milk sheep worldwide, but in America most are mixed breeds. East Friesian and Lacaune mixes are most common and many also have wool breeds mixed in to improve the quality of the wool. As you begin looking for dairy sheep, you might find that you are somewhat limited by what is available near you since they are somewhat rare in the USA. Because most are mixes and they are not very common here, there can be a huge variance in milk production from flock to flock, and even from ewe to ewe. Asking the right questions and doing your research will help ensure you end up with ewes that fulfill what you are looking for.

Consider lineage. When choosing a milk sheep, you want to be sure that they come from lines with proven good dairy qualities. If you are looking at a proven ewe, there are several questions you should ask. How much milk did she produce on average last season? In large scale milking, milk amounts are measured in pounds and often are per milking season. For small homesteads like ours, I like to talk in quarts per day, since it is more understandable and reasonable for the backyard homesteader.

Will you be milk-sharing? Milk production varies a lot with dairy sheep, and it also varies with how they are managed. Milk-sharing with a lamb (or two) and once-a-day milking will give lower amounts than twice-a-day milking with no lambs on. At our farm we milk-share with our lambs. Our best producers give us about a quart at once-a-day milking when sharing with one lamb for 12 hours a day. After weaning the lamb at three months of age, our best producers give us ½ gallon per day when milking twice a day. 

Number of lambs. You should also ask, how many lambs does she tend to have each time?  Ewes that have multiple births produce more milk. Has she had any lambing difficulties?  Does she bond well with her lambs and mother them?  If you want to milk-share with the lambs it will be important that she knows how to mother them. Has she been hand-milked, or machine-milked?  What is her temperament like in the stanchion?  If possible, you should visit her during milking time and see what she is like and how it goes.

Body conformation. You should also evaluate her conformation either by photos or in-person. Her udder should be big, but not too pendulous. The attachment to the body should be wide and strong. She should have 2 teats – some sheep have extra, non-functioning teats that can get in the way during milking. If you plan to hand-milk you will want the teats to be as large as possible for ease of milking and have a lower position on the udder. Her body conformation should be good – straight legs, even mouth with no overbite, etc. And her eyes and nose should be clear. She should look healthy. If you are buying a weanling or unproven yearling, you would want to ask the same questions about her mother. And when looking at a weanling or yearling through photos or in person you will want to look for good conformation of both parents, as well as the lamb herself. Also ask about how the farm manages vaccinations, worming, and what testing they do for communicable diseases. No sheep will be perfect in all areas, but it is important to be aware of what you are buying and what her strengths and weaknesses are and be comfortable with them.

Decide how many sheep you want and can successfully manage based on your space and other resources. You will need at least 2 ewes because sheep are gregarious and don’t do well without other sheep around. Consider your space, your feed abilities, and your milk needs realistically before buying so you don’t end up with too many.

Bringing a sheep home. Once you have found the sheep you want, it is time to bring them home. Feeding properly will be very important to good milk production and will be affected by many factors, including your climate and whether you use pasture or purchased hay. At our farm, we don’t have pasture. We feed grass hay to the rams, non-pregnant ewes, and ewes during the first couple months of pregnancy. At about 6 weeks from lambing, when we shear (see below), we are able to do a thorough evaluation of the ewes condition and either start transitioning her to end-of-pregnancy diet at that point, or if she is overweight we wait until four weeks out to start the transition.

Food rations. Our end-of-pregnancy rations include slowly transitioning to alfalfa and adding in a sweet feed grain. By about 2 weeks before lambing the pregnant ewes are fed 100% alfalfa and about 0.5 pound of sweet feed. Once they lamb, they are kept on alfalfa and their sweet feed is increased for milk production. They stay on that feeding ration until we are ready to stop milking. Lambs are given access to a creep feeder with alfalfa and grain by about a month of age, and that continues until four or five months of age.

Yearly Cycle of Basic Milk Sheep Care

You may have bought ewes that are currently lactating, or pregnant, or weanlings that have never been bred before. No matter what situation you start with, your yearly cycle will look the same.

Breeding. In order to have milk from a sheep, she must be bred and give birth yearly. Sheep breed seasonally from about September through December. Their gestation is 147 days. When planning your breeding you need to look at when you want them to be lambing, and work back from there. Because we live in the high-altitude Rockies and experience freezing temperatures into May, we like to lamb later in the year than most people. We breed November/December to get April/May lambs. This decreases our chances of dealing with chilled lambs.

Consider cycle. If you bought a breeding ram for your flock, you will want to keep him away from the ewes until you are ready to breed them. If you do not have a ram you will need to either lease one and bring it to your farm, or take your ewes to a farm that has one. A ewe’s breeding cycle is about 17 days, so you will want them to stay with the ram until you see a breeding and then don’t see a re-breeding 17 days later, or for at least 2 full cycles to increase your chances of pregnancy. If you see the breeding you can mark down the date and know when they are due to lamb. If not, you will have to count on the end-of-pregnancy symptoms to try to guess when it will be time.

Shearing. Milk sheep need to be shorn once a year to remove their wool. If you do not shear them, the wool will continue to grow and mat and become a health issue for them. Their wool adds to the value of having milk sheep because they provide 2 different items for your homestead (milk and wool). Pure-bred milk sheep generally have a wool that has more itch-factor and is not as sought-after for yarn, but it is great for making rugs and other items that don’t touch the skin. Cross-breeding milk sheep to wool breeds can improve the quality of the wool and make their fleece more valuable. But care needs to be taken to not lose their dairy qualities in the process.

We recommend shearing about 6 weeks before lambing each year. Scheduling a shearer to come to your farm can be tricky, since most people shear near the same time of year. So be sure to plan ahead and contact the shearer well ahead of when you want to be scheduled for shearing.

Vaccinations and Worming. Discuss with your vet what type of vaccination and worming schedule you should use.

Lambing and Milking. Now that you have the basics of keeping milk sheep, it is time to move on to the fun part – the reason you got milk sheep. Watch for Part 3 to learn about lambing, milking your milk sheep, and using the milk

 Read the rest of the series:

Part 1: Housing and Supplies

Part 3: Lambing, Milking Your Sheep, and Using Sheep Milk

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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