Using Shetland Sheep Milk

Kathy Baker Oct 01 2005

Shetlands  provide a smaller quantity of milk as compared to dairy breeds like the East Friesian. For those interested in trying to dairy with Shetlands,  it may be helpful to learn from Icelandic dairies. Note that Icelandic sheep are a larger cousin of  the Shetland and have been used for dairying for centuries in Iceland.  

Sheep milk can also be used to make various cheeses and soap products. Small scale production of these products may be of interest to the homesteader, artisan or breeder looking to diversify.

For more tips on Dairying, Cheese and Soap Making,  click on Dairy Links below.

Heidi and Bill Clarke keep a flock of registered Shetlands as well as a flock of East Friesians in Saskatchewan, Canada. The following is general information on Dairying. 


 Sheep Dairying                             by Heidi Clarke  NASSA Flock  # 431

Sheep have been milked and their milk has been made into cheese for thousands of years, mostly in the Middle East and in the Mediterranean.

More than half the dairy products consumed worldwide come from sheep or goats.  Some of the world's more famous cheeses include Roquefort, Romano, Ricotta and Feta.  In 2004 more than 72 million pounds of sheep cheese were imported into North America.  In 1989, 1.2 billion sheep were milked worldwide (40 million in Turkey alone) compared with only about 226 million cows.  Some of the world's longest living people are shepherds found in European countries where their diet consists mostly of sheep products.

Sheep milk is very white in color and rich in taste.  It has no unpleasant 'sheepy' taste or odor.  It is higher in milk fat (6-8%) and protein (5-7%) than cow's milk and has a 'thick' texture similar to coffee cream.  These percentages vary depending on feed and stage of lactation. Ewe's milk exceeds cow's milk in mono- and poly-unsaturated and in essential fatty acids which are so valued in today's health conscious society.  Sheep milk is high in essential vitamins and minerals and is very easy to digest (45 minutes as compared to 4 hours for cow's milk).  Two cups of sheep's milk supply the recommended daily intake of calcium (125%), phosphorus (65%), zinc (50%), vitamin E (40%), vitamin C (50%), vitamin B12 (140%).  Sheep's milk is a sweet, rich, tasty beverage.

Sheep milk can be frozen for later use with no loss of quality when used within 12 months.  It continues to be tasty even when frozen.  Besides being used as a beverage, it makes excellent ice cream and yogurt.  Most commercial sheep cheese is made from frozen milk.  Sheep milk used in baking and cooking requires a downward adjustment of any sugars among ingredients.

Research has shown that milking a ewe once a day and having her raise her own lambs is more economical than either removing the lambs to raise them on milk replacer, or letting her raise them for 30 days and then weaning them.

If you want to milk your ewes, there are a few points to consider to ensure a more successful milking experience.  Choose ewes not only based on the quantity of milk but also on their temperament.  A more placid ewe will be less stressed by the  milking procedure than a high strung one.  Be patient and calm yourself, to encourage good milk letdown in your ewe.  Adopt an unvarying milking routine and milking time to keep milk production at its optimum.  Train ewes to be tethered by halter or head gate several weeks before you wish to start milking.  Develop a routine (that you will follow when you actually start to milk).  That lets the sheep know you are going to touch the udder (eg. touching the upper rear leg before touching the udder).

Continue this training until you are certain that the ewes are going to be comfortable with it when the time comes to start milking.  Unlike goats and cows, sheep are not milked from the side but from behind, between the hind legs.

Observe good personal hygiene.  Ensure that your hands, fingernails and clothing are clean. It is a good idea to let the lambs 'clean' up the last of the milk in the udder so that the ewe is completely emptied after milking.  Feeding after milking encourages the ewe to keep standing, allowing the teat sphincter to close which prevents bacteria from entering.

Udders must be clean and dry.  If udders are dirty and must be washed, make sure they are well dried before milking.  It is even advisable to sanitize the udders with a towel dampened in sanitizer to prevent introduction of bacteria into the milk.

80% of a ewe's milk is held in the milk secreting tissues of the udder.

Only 20% is held in the milk cistern.  Proper udder massage stimulates the pituitary gland to release oxytocin which initiates milk letdown.  Gentle but firm massaging of the udder is very important in maximizing milk letdown.  Follow the routine that you developed during training that lets them know you are going to touch the udder.  Never surprise your ewes.

Each ewe will have her individual timing related to the letdown.

For best taste, milk should have minimal contact with the air.  Chill quickly and keep in fridge or freezer.  There are other factors that affect the flavour of milk, such as what is eaten and even what smells are in the air. Make sure your ewes are housed in well ventilated quarters and monitor what they eat.  Practice sound sanitation management.  Keep milking area clean and dry.  Udders and teats should be clean (free of wool, dirt, straw, etc.).  Milk into a container fitted with a strainer/filter to prevent dust and debris from falling into the milk.  Wash all milking items with detergent and warm (not hot) water.  Rinse well with cool water.


The following links are not specific to Shetland sheep but will provide useful information about dairying and making smaller quantities of products such as yogurt, cheese and soap using milk from your sheep.




SEARCH TOOL (Results will be listed below)

Meat & Other: Search for: