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Extract from Home Farm Magazine

No 74 February 1988              Copyright   Pam Shaw


My Milking Sheep by Pam Shaw


Sheep dairying is currently one of the growth sectors in agriculture, a chance for people to earn a reasonable income from a few acres. Quite a lot of capital is needed and markets have to be well- researched before-hand to guarantee a regular demand. However, a few dairy sheep producing milk for home consumption are a useful addition to any small farm aiming at self-sufficiency. Sheep's milk, being nearly twice as high in solids as cow's milk, is very economical for making cheeses and makes a thick, creamy yoghurt. It is also extremely nutritious.


Nucleus Flock
I have been milking sheep for several years now and have a nucleus flock of about fifteen ewes milked regularly at lambing and weaning time. Several more can be milked for spare colostrum or at weaning time to help them dry off without recourse to antibiotics. In between they rear Suffolk lambs, usually two, sometimes three. At clipping time they provide a heavy, lustrous fleece that is popular with hand-spinners. Each year the surplus young ewes are sold to other self- supporters and small farmers who seem very happy with their subsequent performance.


Most of the milking ewes are Friesland crosses although I have milked a few Blackfaces and the occasional Cheviot (which are our local breeds). I started milking Oldenburg x Blackface ewes because they are already part Friesland and are quiet to handle. The best of these ewes I put to a borrowed Friesland tup and the ewes from this cross now go to my own Friesland tup so that some of the dairy flock are 3/4 bred. I also have a few pure ewes bred from a bought-in Friesland ewe lamb that lambed in her first year and has had twins since then. The whole venture has cost very little money and brought a great deal of pleasure and not a little profit. Pure Friesland ewes are very expensive to buy and I find the crosses suit our harsh climate better because they have heavier fleeces and carry more fat.


Most of my dairy flock are Friesland x Oldenburg ewes with Friesland x Shetland a close second. Pure Shetlands are very milky for their small size with neat, well-shaped udders. If they are crossed with a Friesland tup a very acceptable dairy animal is produced. Any ewe for crossing should have a good-sized udder with well-placed teats for hand milking. Many milking sheep have small teats pointing out rather than down. These can be milked by machine but are very. difficult for hand-milkers.


Quiet Temperament
A quiet temperament is essential. Some sheep do not like being handled. All our hoggs (lambs in their first winter) are kept at home. They become used to being handled and are trained, with food, to come to call. I realise that I am lucky in that my milking ewes have been chosen from a commercial flock of 400. Many commercial sheep farmers are now keeping a few dairy ewes to provide additional colostrum for lambing time and spare lambs for fostering on. In my experience, these sheep virtually pay for themselves for these reasons alone.
I do not have a milking parlour. The ewes are milked from August until the beginning of October in an ordinary handling race, from behind as on the continent. The advantage in this is that they are used to coming into the race throughout the year anyway. The disadvantage is that the race is in the open. On very wet days (thankfully very few) the milk is too dirty for human consumption and is fed to the pet lambs or the hens if it is really bad. The ewes, many of them milked in previous years, soon get used to the milking arrangements and will stand placidly chewing the cud. In fact most seem to positively enjoy it. This is probably reinforced by the feed they get when the milking is finished.

I find 15 ewes provide too much milk and take up too much time over a long period, so I gradually dry them off and keep it to just three of the best ewes. As the summer wears on they are milked every second day, providing us with one small cheese and one batch of yoghurt each time. This is quite enough for our needs and the occasional sale. The whole milking operation - getting them in, putting them out and feeding - takes only 20 minutes.


Cheese making is a very time consuming process. A simple sheep's milk cheese can be made in the following way. It is very quick to make but must be eaten within a few days or kept in a fridge. I use four parts of sieved sheep's milk immediately after milking, i.e. when it is still warm. Add a third (or small half) of a teaspoon of rennet mixed in three teaspoons of cold water and stir well. Leave this to stand overnight in a warm place. Then cut into cubes and pour through a cheesecloth, leaving the curds to drip. My "cheese press" is a large, empty dried yeast tin with both ends taken out. Holes have been punched in the plastic lid which is placed on the bottom and the metal end is used as a follower. I use a two pound weight and a dish to collect the whey that runs out through the plastic lid. The strained curds are mixed with salt, pepper and any other flavourings (I like chives best) to taste. I usually press the cheese for another two days before removing, rolling in oatmeal and storing in a cheese safe. The result is a small, semi-hard, sliceable cheese that has proved very popular.

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