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Meet Some Pint-Sized Milk Producers

This is part of a three article package. The others include:

*Move Over Cheddar
*A Snapshot Of The Dairy Sheep Industry

About 60 years after it sold its dairy cow herd, the Spooner Agricultural Research Station is back in the dairy business.

But it”s not your typical milk herd. It yields raw material not just for flavorful cheese, but also for socks, sweaters, moussaka and shish kebab.

That”s because the Spooner station herd isn”t a herd; it”s a flock – part of the nation”s only dairy sheep research program. Since April, the Spooner crew has been running about 130 ewes through a spanking-new milking parlor.

Producing milk from sheep has been common in Mediterranean nations for centuries, but not all that common here. There are about 100 U.S. dairy sheep operations.

Wisconsin has about a dozen, more than any other state and 11 more than there were six years ago. In fact, Wisconsin is poised to become for sheep what it is for cows: America”s Dairyland.

There are good reasons to encourage this. Sheep dairying is largely a forage-based industry, suited to the state”s rolling terrain. Its also suits smaller farms, because the capital investment isn”t as steep as it is for a cow dairy.

And it provides a valuable raw ingredient for the many Wisconsin cheesemakers who are finding their niche in the specialty cheese market. Sheep”s milk – either by itself or blended with cow”s milk – can yield some dynamite specialty cheeses.

Yves Berger and Dave Thomas, CALS sheep researchers, are busy building a research foundation for this new industry. The milking parlor at Spooner is a key step. Another is having some sheep worth milking.

“The breeds in this country now have been selected primarily for meat and wool. Trying to start a dairy sheep industry with these breeds would be like trying to start a dairy cow industry with Hereford and Angus,” Thomas explains.

“Wisconsin is getting the jump on dairy breeds,” he adds. “There are some Holsteins of the sheep world out there, and that”s what we want to get hold of.”

The “Holsteins” they”re concentrating on are East Friesians, a German dairy breed. Getting these animals has been difficult, partly due to U.S. Department of Agriculture import restrictions, and partly because of availability.

Using a grant from the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, the researchers got together with some local producers to import several crossbred Friesian rams from Canada. Since then, they”ve been busy getting Friesian blood into state dairy flocks by collecting semen from the rams at Spooner and at the private farms and sharing it with other producers.

They”ve also been busy evaluating these animals for three end-products: milk, meat and lambs.

It”s still early, of course. The ewes are still in their first lactation. And all of the station”s Friesian blood comes from three rams – not enough genetic diversity to draw conclusions. But early results look promising.

“We”re very pleased,” Thomas reports. These ewes have very good growth rates and a very high reproduction rate. Friesian ewes will average over two lambs per lambing.”

As for milk: “To date, our Friesian-cross ewes are producing a little over twice the milk per day as the Dorset crosses that serve as our controls.

Milking efficiency is another research angle.

“We”re trying to learn how to milk more ewes per unit of time,” Thomas explains. “That”s one thing that holds down our producers now. In their facilities, it will take them nearly three hours to milk 100 ewes, and people won”t be willing to do that. In our system at Spooner, it takes us about 45 minutes to milk 110 ewes. We”ve been in some French parlors where they could milk 300 ewes per hour during peak lactation and 400 per hour at the end of lactation.”

The parlor consists of 24 stanchions – 12 on either side of a 16-foot by 4-foot 30-inch-deep pit – and six milking units. A unique feature is a roll-back system. After 12 ewes have stepped into the stanchions on one side of the parlor, that whole side of the parlor – ewes, stanchions and all -rolls over, positioning the milking end of the ewes at the edge of the pit.

Milk is piped to a bulk tank, and then frozen until there”s enough to ship to the Montchevre cheese plant in Belmont.

The university”s research support is critical if the state”s dairy sheep industry is to continue to expand, says Diane Kaufmann, whose family has been milking sheep for four years on

its farm at Chippewa Falls.

The Kaufmanns have worked alongside the UW-Madison researchers in the effort to import Friesian rams and to share semen from those rams among the state”s sheep milk producers.

The Friesian blood has had a big impact, she reports.

“We”ve definitely seen a difference. Our yearlings in the parlor are giving twice as much milk as their contemporaries without Friesian blood did a year ago,” she says.

The genetics is one of the main reason people have been holding back, she explains. “It”s discouraging to put a lot of labor into an animal that doesn”t produce a lot of milk.

For people to get into the business, the markets have to develop. But the markets are shaky because there hasn”t been enough milk. Everything has to move forward together.

“The university”s work at Spooner will encourage others to get in,”

she says.