Have you heard of sheep milk but never had a chance to try it? While it’s still relatively unknown or not very often used in North America, sheep dairy has been consumed and enjoyed by humans for thousands of years. Two places in the world where sheep milk is most popular include countries around the Mediterranean and some parts of Europe.
Some North American farmers are starting to get into sheep milk production, whether as part of their existing agricultural operation or, in some cases, as the sole focus of their farms. Sheep farmers must ensure that they choose sheep from recognized dairy breeds.
An Introduction to Sheep Milk
Sheep milk is incredibly nutritious and is especially good when used to produce cheese. In fact, much higher cheese yields can be achieved with sheep’s milk than can with cow’s milk.
The milk from sheep is also especially wonderful for making yogurt. Sheep dairy products (such as cheese and yogurt in addition to the milk sheep produce) have a remarkably delicious flavor which is unique from the cow’s milk varieties.
It’s because of sheep milk’s high solids content that it’s so useful for cheese and yogurt production. Did you know that some of the world’s best loved cheeses are made from sheep’s milk? Examples include Feta, Pecorino, Halloumi, and Manchego.
Sheep’s milk is also traditionally used when making Greek-style yogurt.
How Milk is Produced from Sheep
Dairy breed ewes have lactation periods that average around 240 days (or eight months). In most cases, farmers will milk each of their dairy ewes for about six months of the year (this is around 180 days). Dairy ewes have much longer lactation periods than other ewes, which only have lactation periods of about 90 to 150 days.
During a 180-day lactation period, a dairy sheep can produce as many as 1100 pounds of milk. Sheep’s milk is similar to goat’s milk in that it is naturally homogenized. This means that cream doesn’t separate as readily as milk from cows. Sheep’s milk also has a higher butterfat content than cow’s milk. Not only that, sheep’s milk also has higher protein content. The high protein content in a sheep’s milk is key to the fact it’s so much more effective at making cheese than cow’s milk.
With sheep, two gallons of milk can make a small (4-inch to 6-inch diameter and 1 to 2 inches high) wheel of cheese. The exact size will depend on the pressing weight and the diameter of the mold. One gallon of milk from a sheep can make 4 quarts of yogurt.
Farmers who already have sheep for wool and/or meat production can get into dairy too, but they will need specialized equipment to do so. Some small farmers who do not have sheep also decide to get a flock in order to enter the sheep dairy market.
Common Dairy Sheep Breeds
Specific sheep breeds need to be used when using them in a dairy operation. The most common type of dairy sheep in the United States is the East Friesian. This is because they have the highest rate of milk production and the longest lactation period. They also produce wool, but this breed is primarily raised as a dairy breed of sheep.
Unlike many other sheep breeds, East Friesian females usually have two lambs (instead of one) for each lambing period. There are many East Friesian sheep on sheep farms in the state of New York, certain parts of New Zealand, Wisconsin, and other parts of the upper Midwest. They tend to be difficult to find in other regions of the United States.
The second most common type of dairy sheep found in the United States is a French breed called the Lacaune. The Lacaune ewe’s milk actually has an even higher proportion of solids than East Friesians. However, their total milk yield is lower in volume.
So, Why Choose Milk from Sheep?
Let’s take a look at why many people drink sheep’s milk or use that milk to produce cheese and other dairy products.
One reason is the fact that human digestive system has an easier time with sheep milk than it does with cow’s milk and even goat’s milk. One advantage of sheep milk over goat milk is the fact that it doesn’t have such a strong scent or taste.
If you have a dairy intolerance with other kinds of milk, you may find that you are able to tolerate sheep milk. Many people with cow’s milk intolerance are able to eat and enjoy sheep milk products.
There is a widespread belief that consuming large amounts of sheep milk and products made from it can contribute to longevity for humans.
One reason is the superior calcium content. This is why it has been found to be extremely beneficial for helping to prevent osteoporosis and it may even help people who already have osteoporosis.
Sheep Milk Compared to Goat Milk and Cow Milk
Sheep milk is recognized as being the most nutritious milk on the planet. Milk from sheep offers superior levels of short and medium chain fatty acids. These are beneficial for humans and give us direct energy instead of being something that will be stored as fat (which is the case with longer chain fats).
Short and medium-chain fatty acids are also referred to as mono- and poly-unsaturated fats. When ingested by humans, they are able to inhibit, limit, and lower the deposition of cholesterol. We all know how important that is for our health.
The fat globules in sheep’s milk are also smaller. This means that we can digest it more easily and it can often be tolerated by people who have digestion problems with cow’s milk and cow’s milk products. Many people also believe that the lactose found in sheep milk can be digested and tolerated by humans more easily.
Sheep milk’s levels of nutrients, such as vitamins A, B, C, D, and E, as well as folate, iron, calcium, magnesium, zinc, riboflavin, thiamin, linoleic acids, medium-chain amino acids, all of the essential amino acids (there are 10 of them), and protein, are higher than what is found in goat and cow milk. This is why so many dieticians and doctors tell their patients to choose sheep milk over cow’s milk.
Just having two cups of sheep milk every day will provide the daily requirement of riboflavin, calcium, and half of the 10 essential amino acids. If you want to have cheese or yogurt instead of just the milk, you will get the same benefits from 93g of cheese or two cups of yogurt made from sheep’s milk.
The ratio between calcium and phosphorus found in sheep dairy products is especially good for humans. That is because calcium and phosphorus need each other if they are to be digested properly.
A sheep’s milk has less saturated fat when compared to other kinds of milk. The fatty acids found in sheep’s milk are 45 percent mono- or poly-unsaturated fats.
Let’s take a look at a chart comparing some of the nutrients offered by 100 grams of sheep dairy, goat dairy, and cow milk.
Sheep vs Cow vs Goat Milk (Nutrition Comparison)
It’s clear from the comparison above that sheep’s milk is full of minerals and vitamins that will benefit your health.