We put a lot of time and effort into coming up with the perfect use of space for our homestead in order to become self-sufficient. We get our chickens, look at what ducks may do to benefit us, decide the value of breeding hogs, raising one for the freezer, or splitting one with the neighbor. And many of us longingly look at options for having fresh dairy.
For many of us, cattle are not a viable option, either because of the amount of space they take up, the amount of milk they produce being overwhelming (you have to get creative to find uses for five gallons of milk per day), the maintenance being intimidating (milking nonstop twice a day for nearly a year?), or because we have an intolerance to bovine milk. Goats are the next possibility, but they bring their own concerns for people. Less milk, and less time required to milk, but some people taste a “musk” when drinking or eating, while others get frustrated with the climbing and destructive tendencies.
Enter the sheep: overlooked, misunderstood and possibly the perfect solution.
We have been milking our pasture raised St Croix sheep and have become converts: small and easy to care for, manageable, not destructive, and not overwhelming. This has been a learning experience for us, and one that we feel more people should get behind.
We haven't been able to find a lot on milking sheep, even though it has been successfully done for thousands of years. There are dairy breeds that produce rich, flavorful cheeses, and the St Croix, itself, was milked back on the island as a dual purpose animal (which is probably why they can so easily handle keeping twins and triplets fat and sassy). So we wanted to share our own experience with this amazing breed and debunk some of the myths we have discovered along the way. Please be aware that our experience is what we have discovered on our own, and a lot of what we are discovering may not apply to other breeds of sheep. Farming is both a journey and a learning experience, and we hope that this information will give you a head start to milking your own St Croix to add to the overall pool of knowledge.Flavor
First off, we have not noticed any “musky” taste in the milk after it has been sitting in the fridge for a few days. It tends to go from milk to sour without any real in between. It is rich, but very mild flavored, without much of an aftertaste like I have found with cow's milk.Butter and More
Part of why our milk may be mild could be because we skim the cream off: which can be done. Everything I have read has said that sheep's milk is naturally homogenized, but after 24 hours in the fridge, there is a clear cream line, and after 2-3 days, you can easily place your thumb all the way down the cream line in a quart jar and barely touch where the cream ends and the milk begins. The milk is snow white, and so is the cream, leaving you with a beautiful ivory butter. We have also used it to successfully make everything else we used to make with our cows: ice cream, yogurt, and mozzarella.Ease of Milking
Before milking sheep, I read many of things: that they had greasy udders, tiny teats, hard to train (or too stupid to train), and were high strung, so getting them to let down their milk was a constant battle. None of that has been true for the St Croix.
Our sheep came from a registered flock that pasture-raised for meat: no one milked or bred for milking traits, and no one made pets out of the babies. After a year on pasture, we purchased them, bred them, and lost track of time. By the time we realized they were ready to lamb, all we had done was train them to wear a collar and to understand a rope tug. They weren't halter broke and we had never touched their udders. Not ideal for anything you are milking. After a week of struggle (half begging, half dragging them to the stanchion, and half begging, half pinning them to milk), we went down there one day and they were waiting at the gate, walked calmly to the stanchion, hopped in, and started eating their grain. Other than occasional arguments, they settled down fine. They haven't been high strung, they aren't overly flighty, and they learned pretty quickly how things worked. While bottle babies, or at least pets as babies, would have been much, much easier, with patience and perseverance even pasture yearlings can become milkers.
As for the other myths: our girls have a nice clean smooth udder. No grease – which we are attributing to the lanolin found in wool breeds. We milked over the summer and didn't even feel the need to shave anything (though over the winter a little trim may be preferred, just like with goats). The teats are small, but we milk one side of the udder and slide down into the teat rather than milk like a cow. Large hands may find it a bit awkward, but if you keep an open mind, you should be able to find a way that works well for you.Amount
Once your girls understand that milking = goodies, they settle into the routine fine, let their milk down, and focus on their gluttony. We have found that our first time fresheners (yearling milkers) have produced anywhere from a pint to one quart per milking. We have so far milked three different ways: we were milking twice a day with the lamb still on mom, which netted us nearly nothing. Then after over a week of that, we moved to a 12 hours on/off rotation, where the lambs stayed with mom for 12 hours of the day, then for the other 12 hours were in an adjoining pasture so that we could milk. That was the most ideal system, and I think it made the lambs more independent faster, which helped with weaning. After the babies were weaned, we moved to a once a day milking schedule. Milking once a day means we get less overall milk, but for our schedule it works extremely well. We can spend time down at the barn in the evening without worrying about getting dinner on, or what needs to be done for the day, or rushing to finish errands.
For our lower-end producers, with a first time freshening, they produce a little over a quart a day were they to be milked twice, and for our higher end producers, we are looking at roughly a half gallon a day at their (admittedly short) peak. Remember: these are ewes that have not been bred to be dual purpose animals for generations.
I don't expect – or want – them to be two-gallon a day milkers for most of the year. We as breeders should balance what we breed for to keep St Croix true to their breed: we don't want them to become over-sized meaty Dorpers and we don't want them to become scrawny dairy goats.
We do want good milkers; which means we have good mothers who can produce plenty to put weight on many lambs, and calm personalities that make them easy to work with in the field, show ring, or stanchion. St Croix are an incredible, unique breed, and by milking we can truly get the most out of these diverse sheep.
I hope this gives you a head start in branching out with your current stock, or the confidence to dive in and experience everything that the St Croix has to offer: out of season breeding, ease of lambing, no crutching/docking/shearing needed, fattening on brush, better parasite resistance, excellent mothers, rapid growth, and fun little milkers.