Everyone farms in their own way...
All learnt from one another.
How much does it cost to set up?
The cost of setting up a sheep dairy farm is a fraction of setting up a cow dairy farm. However, anyone who is thinking of starting up should first arrange to visit some existing sheep dairy farms to find out what is involved. The BSDA will be pleased to put you in touch with members so that you can arrange some visits.
If and when you decide to take the plunge, you’ll have formed a pretty good idea of the dairy business you plan to start, including the breed and number of sheep, the pasture to graze them on, the buildings and equipment needed to house and milk them - and to process the milk if you decide to go down that route - and the capital required to set up the business, plus the working capital you’ll need for your first year of trading.
The most valuable product from dairy ewes is of course milk, but ram lambs are raised for meat, and the wool also has a value. Friesland ram lambs are difficult to finish and there is a good opportunity (especially for young farmers) to find ways to improve on current methods of rearing and finishing these lambs and to find a profitable niche market for them. Most British wool is made into carpets, but recently other products have been developed, including wall insulation material for buildings, slug pellets and even coffins.
What are the best breed?
Dairy sheep are intelligent, kind and easy to domesticate. The main breeds used in sheep dairying in Britain are the Friesland, Lacaune, British Milksheep and some Dorset crosses, the Friesland being the most common and highest yielding, with its distinctive “rat-tail” which is free of wool which helps to keep its rear end clean whatever the weather conditions without having to dock the tail.
In her seminal book Practical Sheep Dairying, Olivia Mills (who founded the BSDA) listed the main attributes which should be looked for when buying dairy ewes as: handleability, placid temperaments, well shaped udders and good teat placement (for machine milking).
The selection of good rams is also important, to ensure that the ewes produce their lambs at the right time and that the lambs are big and strong. When you inspect a ram to buy, make sure his feet and legs are clean and strong and that his teeth are in good nick, and that his testicles are large and firm. It may be a good idea to arrange for your vet to inspect the ram before you decide to buy.
Ewes are traditionally put to the tup (ram) on Guy Fawkes Day and will lamb on April Fool’s Day (although these dates can be changed to suit your own system). The average lambing percentage per ewe in Britain is 175%. During a lactation of between 200 and 250 days, yields per ewe can vary from between 150 litres and 450 litres depending on nutrition, genetics and management. The average life-expectancy of a ewe is about 6 to 7 years although some ewes can live to double figures.
Flock health is paramount and when you take delivery of your first sheep it’s a good idea to arrange for your local sheep vet to visit you and discuss a flock health programme, so that you’re prepared for any possible health problems which may arise. Prevention is much better (and cheaper) than cure. Regular weighing is a useful method of gauging the condition of your ewes to make sure that you are aware of any deterioration in their condition and so that you can take any necessary action to remedy this.
Unfortunately, sheep (and lambs) have a habit of dying and you’ll have to make arrangements for the disposal of dead animals.
Observation is the most important tool which a shepherd possesses, so take time to observe your sheep every day, and don’t be put off by passers-by who see you leaning on the fence and think you’re just being idle!
More specific info on breeds: https://domesticanimalbreeds.com/category/sheep/
How much grazing you would need?
Ewes can be kept at about five or six to the acre. Britain grows the best grass in the world and because sheep have their lambs in the springtime all the milk is produced from grazed grass throughout the summer. This is a huge advantage , both financially and for the taste and quality of the milk, and it also means that the better your grassland pasture, the more milk you’ll produce.
Grow good quality grass leys with plenty of clover in them – clover is a legume which fixes its own nitrogen from the sun, so there’s absolutely no need to use any artificial fertilisers if you look after your pastures properly.
You’ll need to make or buy enough conserved grass as hay or silage to feed the flock throughout the winter but this will only be for maintenance, not production.
Good fencing is essential, stock netting with two strands of plain wire on top for all boundary fences, and similar or elecric fences to divide up your fields. Rotational grazing of the milkers is an advantage if it suits your farm layout.
Winter housing is essential in Britain and buildings should be weather-proof and draft free but with good ventilation. The space needed per ewe housed is between 15 and 20 square feet. Polytunnels are a perfectly acceptable form of alternative shelter for ewes and lambs in the winter and you can buy and erect them for far less than conventional farm buildings, although you may still need planning permission. The best bedding material for sheep is good quality straw.
If you decide to process your milk, you’ll need a dairy building with a separate processing room and the necessary equipment to store, pasteurise and bottle your milk, or vats for cheese making, or a batch sytem for yoghurt making.
The first and most important item is a constant supply of fresh, clean water, available at all times to all your sheep, indoors and in the yards and in the fields.
As well as grass, hay and haylage, sheep have to be fed bought-in concentrates to supplement the forage, for milk production and to keep the lactating ewe’s bodyweight at the right level so that she doesn’t lose condition. Concentrates contain whole grain cereals for energy, soya bean meal for protein, and added vitamins and minerals for the body’s requirements.
Who would buy the milk?
There is an increasing demand for sheep milk, whether for bottled milk, cheese, yogurt or ice cream. However, it is essential to find a market for your milk before you start a sheep milking enterprise. One possible outlet for your milk is a cheesemaker near you, and there’s a list of these in the 'Producers' section of this website, or visit the Specialist Cheesemakers Association website for a list of all their members. Sheep milk is nearly twice as high in solids as cows’ milk, and four litres of milk will make a kilo of hard cheese.
What price the milk is per litre?
Everyone needs to get the best possible price for sheep milk as it's an expensive product to produce so make sure you speak to other dairies to check that your market isn't already being supplied. There are plenty of cheese makers who may not already make sheep cheese but if they already are make sure that they are planning to up their production. That way it won't cause oversupply or upset a dairy that is already going, the last thing we need is a repeat of the cow dairy industry. Sheep milk and it's produce are high value products so make sure that you are covering your costs as the producer will be, be a price maker not a price taker.
How many sheep you would need to milk to make it viable?
Deciding whether to sell your milk to a processor or to process it yourself and sell the resulting value-added products is a choice you will have to make, which will depend on several factors: your available capital, the time you have to spend on the various activities, and the profitability of your business - including paying yourself a reasonable wage. Generally speaking you will need more sheep to be a supplier to a cheese maker than if you decide to value add, this figure does vary but a general rule of thumb would be about 400 ewes to be a supplier of sheep milk with a five year break even on investment.
Nowadays every business needs a good website, and social media is also an essential part of selling your products. Word of mouth is still one of the best ways of getting your products known, and if you can get your farm and business featured in editorials in local newspapers and magazines, this is a brilliant way of obtaining free publicity. The constant battle is convincing customers that it's more like cow milk than it is goat, sampling at markets and events is the only way to prove our produce is the best. Sheep milk is a niche high value product.
It’s important that the sheep dairy industry bangs the drum about the fact that all our sheep milk products are fresh and natural - because they are produced from ewes who graze fresh, natural grass - to produce fresh, natural milk!
USEFUL CONTACTS... Click on the logo's to go to the website's..
AFM Food Machinery – processing equipment
ALS – milk micro testing and chemical anaysis
ATL Agricultural Technology Ltd - parlours
British Friesland Sheep Society, Sec. Mrs L Baber
Weir Park Farm, Waterwell Lane, Christow, Exeter,
Devon EX6 7PB Tel: 01647 252549
The British Milksheep Society , William Hopkins
Buy it! Sell it! Want it! – processing equipment
Colsan – new/ refurbished equipment
CurdNerds – entertainment
Food Standards Agency
HIPRA - The reference in prevention for animal health
JohnsonDiversey – dairy chemicals
Jongia – good quality new cheese making equipment
J.K.M. Foods Ltd - Milk testing, suppliers of cultures and rennet
Milking Solutions – Gasgoigne Melotte sheep milking machines
http://www.mandacalfsystems.co.uk - milking machines
Medifarm - Andrew Parkinson, Stopmyasis, fly strike solution
milkingmachines.co.uk – small scale milking machines
Moorlands Cheesemaking – small scale cultures and equipment
Orchard Valley – cheese cultures and rennet
Salsa – third party accreditation for production premises
Specialist Cheese Makers Association
Dairy sheep Association of North America -
http://www.dsana.org/Australian and New Zealand Sheep Dairying Association
Ontario’s Artisan Cheese Region – Live your Dream
European Milking Sheep Associations
The 2 Dutch Milking Sheep Associations: Friesland and Zeeland