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Why Sheep Milk Cheese?

Why Sheep Milk Cheese?

Sheep milk cheese is delicious. The fat molecules in sheep milk are smaller than the fat molecules in cow or goat milk, making sheep milk products more easily digested. The milk also has significantly more fat than other common milks producing a rich, creamy, white cheese or when aged a delicate yellow cheese. Because of this most of the world’s sheep milk is processed into cheese. Roquefort, Feta, Ricotta, Picorina and Manchega are some of the well known varieties and are traditionally made from the milk of sheep.

 

Sheep milk cheese appetizers
Sheep milk cheese. The luscious alternative!

In the U.S. the largest concentration of artisan sheep milk dairies are located in Wisconsin near our farm. This is largely due to the support of the University of Wisconsin Agricultural Research Station in Spooner. For the past twenty years the research station has focused on dairy sheep and has been instrumental in providing technical assistance and disseminating information on dairy sheep genetics, milk production and cheese processing. In the early 1990’s, when the idea of milking sheep was rarely considered in the U.S., the research station imported and supported the implantation of dairy semen to selected flocks. Our flock was one of the original ones inseminated. 

 

In 1994 we received a Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) grant titled: Low-input Portable Sheep Dairying (completed in 1999) to explore milking sheep on pasture. We designed a portable milking parlor that could be moved with the sheep as was traditionally done in Europe. We collected milk production data while allowing lambs to continue to stay on the ewes during their first month. Our unit was never approved as a commercial dairy by the State of Wisconsin so our milk could not be legally sold. Our data demonstrated that lambs would need to be weaned early and raised on grain supplementation if milk and cheese production was the primary goal. As pasture-raised and grass-fed were our core values we refocused our efforts on meat production. Although, we have chosen not to milk our sheep we support the local industry and have chosen some of the best artisan cheeses from our fellow producers to sell to our restaurants on our website.

 

History of Dairy: Sheep and goats have been raised for their milk and meat for thousands of years and historically were domesticated before cows. There are rock drawings of milking scenes in the Sahara and remains of cheese have been found in Egyptian tombs dating dairying activities to at least 2000 BC. Small ruminants are efficient at providing nourishment from uncultivated land. Even today, sheep and goats are raised in remote areas where no cow could survive.

 

Milk jug still being used in Ethiopian highlands
Leather milk jug still used in Ethiopian highlands (Farmer to Farmer Assignment, 2006)

Milking sheep and goats makes sense as they could provide the nutritional equivalent of a slaughtered meat animal or more each year for several years through only their milk. This nutrition was also in manageable daily amounts that would not need to be preserved. Sheep and goats were most likely milked into containers fashioned from skins or animal stomachs. The milk would have transformed naturally in these containers resulting into early forms of yogurts and cheeses.

 

Today, of the estimated 100 million sheep globally, 10% are milked. Milking sheep is especially common in France, Spain, Italy and Greece. France alone has almost one million ewes in dairy production. Most of the world’s sheep milk is processed into cheese. Roquefort, the blue cheese of south central France, is one of the better known of the sheep milk cheeses. Feta from Greece, Ricotta and Picorina from Italy and Manchega from Spain are traditionally made from sheep’s milk.

 

Nutrition:  Sheep produce a very rich milk but low in volume compared to goats that produce the highest quantity of milk of any dairy animal per its body weight. It may take 200 sheep to craft one 60 lb wheel of cheese. Sheep milk is also limited by seasonality as they produce milk for only six to seven months of the year, traditionally off grass. Because of this the cheese tends to be more expensive than cow and goat milk alternatives. Most consumers believe it is well worth the price!

Composition of different kinds of milk per 100 grams

Type

Protein

Calcium (mg)

Carbohydrates (g)

Vit A (RE)

Vit B12 (mcg)

Vit C (mg)

Phosphorus (mg)

Magnesium (mg)

Cholesterol (mg)

Sheep

9.0

193

5.4

83

.7

5.0

158

18

5.4

Goat

5.2

134

4.5

56

.1

1.3

111

14

4.5

Cow

3.5

119

4.8

52

.4

1.5

93

13

4.8

Source: The nutritional value of sheep milk by George F. W. Haenlein D.Sc., Ph.D. Professor Emeritus at the University of Delaware, has been recognized by Cambridge Who’s Who for showing dedication, leadership and excellence in animal nutrition studies.

Compared to more common milks sheep milk is highly nutritious. It is richer in vitamins A, B, and C, calcium, phosphorus and magnesium and other nutrients than cow’s milk. Sheep milk contains a higher proportion of short- and medium-chain fatty acids, which have recognized health benefits. For example, short-chain fatty acids have little effect on cholesterol levels in people. They make milk easier to digest. Sheep milk has more conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) than the milk from pigs, horses, goats, cattle, and humans. CLA is a cancer-fighting, fat-reducing fat. The fat globules in sheep milk are smaller than the fat globules in cow’s milk, making sheep milk products more easily digested.

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