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US Sheep Dairying - Small Industry Thinks Big

23 August 2016

The expansion of US sheep dairying is hampered by cheap imports undermining domestic product. American sheep dairy owners cite heavily subsidised EU cheese with minimal US import tariffs and a favourable euro to dollar exchange rate as cause, writes John Wilkes.

Against this background the US dairy sheep industry faces many challenges as this fledgling niche sector strives to maintain and develop greater market share.

Ewes being milked at Shepherds Manor Creamery

Laurel Keiffer, President and Director of the Dairy Sheep Association of North America (DSANA) commented: “It costs £20/kg just to break even when producing a wheel of US sheep milk cheese. EU imports cost the US retailer just £7/kg delivered to their deli counter.”

This price disparity was evident in 2014 when a national restaurant chain approached DSANA to make cheese exclusively for them because they were unable to compete against imported £6/kg Greek cheese.

DSANA members want to build a bigger presence on deli counters and discerning restaurant cheese boards across the US To achieve a wider presence more cheese needs to be produced and this requires milk. Limited milk production constrains the cheese industry’s ability to deliver.

Laurel Keiffer explained: “There are only 120 larger flocks across the entire US and some smaller set-ups milking up to 20 ewes.”

Milk produced is processed into yoghurt and ice cream with some sold as whole milk. However, it is the US speciality cheese market worth £13 billion per annum that most sheep dairies, regardless of their size, target.

Shepherds Manor's Tomae. A semi-hard wash rind Italian style cheese. Aged for at least 60 days.

Ms Keiffer added: “Most of these stand-alone operations raise sheep, milk them and then make cheese. This is sold locally at farmers markets or is sold at home stores.”

It is hard to qualify a viable operation. For some producers the sheep dairy is often a sideline and/or lifestyle business, Ms Keiffer commented: ”A couple of farms are heading towards 2,000 head, but most US flocks run 70-100 ewes.”

From the perspective of sheep breeders’ small numbers adversely impact genetics. The scarcity of fresh genes in the US of the popular Lacaune breed prompted DSANA to import semen from high performance French rams. Laurel Keiffer was concerned that the relatively high cost involved might deter members.

She explained: “At $80 a straw the cost of syncronising ewes, Laparoscopic AI fees and maybe a 70/80 per cent conception rate, we worried about member uptake. Ultimately we were overwhelmed and even had a waiting list for the 775 straws that ended up in the US.”

After this injection of high performance genetics a positive move by DSANA was made to introduce a sire referencing scheme said Laurel Keiffer.

The introduction of a statutory monthly milk recording would provide meaningful data for the US industry. Ms Keiffer added: “I would like to see DSANA enforce the gathering of milk production data from any resultant offspring from the latest French semen import.”

However, support for such a milk-recording scheme is limited. Ms Keiffer opined: “Some people are content to merely look in the bucket, at the milking line or even just the udder to make pretty irrelevant visual breeding decisions.”

Another key area is marketing with progressive ideas to enhance awareness of the US speciality cheese producers and their products.

“The price can shock people at first, but we have a luxury product aimed at the high-end,” said Michael Histon owner, along with wife Colleen, of Shepherds Manor Creamery, New Windsor, Maryland.

The Histon’s produce cheese in a purpose built dairy constructed in 2009. It is set up for small batch volume, high quality cheese making with milk from their February and March lambing ewes.

Currently 80 Lacaune and East Friesian ewes out of a flock of 169 are milked at the farm yielding around 1.8kg per day. Milking ceases in September.

The Histons' flock comprises mostly Lacaune ewes with fewer East Friesland ewes

Colleen Histon oversees production. By late July 2016, 890 wheels of hard cheese with weights between .9kg -1.8kg were manufactured with retail prices at £63/kg. Additionally 453kg of soft cheese sold at £44/kg.

At Washington, DC Penn Quarter and Dupont Circle weekly farmers markets, the Histons explain their pricing to customers. Michael Histon elaborated: “As our sheep only yield a quart (.95l) night and morning it limits our output. We also make people aware of what it takes to get the product in front of them.”

Environmental awareness for customers at these leading urban farmers markets is important as well as affording an opportunity to promote Shepherds Manor Creamery cheese.

Mr Histon commented: “We’re finding many ecologically minded people these days buying our product. We explain that pound for pound and dollar for dollar cheese from US dairy sheep gives them a protein source with less environmental impact than product from dairy cows. Also, we’re local with a much smaller carbon footprint compared to imported European sheep cheese.”

A growing interest in food that is different with a story helps sell. Michael Histon added: “With increased awareness of food diversity, cheese made locally at Maryland’s only sheep dairy offers consumers so much in this respect.”

Ultimately it is all about the way a cheese tastes and the health advantages attributable to sheep milk that persuade customers, said Michael Histon.

Relative to cow and goat, sheep milk is a rich source of minerals (calcium and zinc) and vitamins (A, D and E, Folic acid and B12). Its increased incidence of beneficial small fat globules and medium chain fatty acids improve digestibility. Mr Histon commented: “For those allergic to cow and goats milk our milk offers an alternative source to sufferers.”

The Histons hope their cheese continues to grow in popularity. Colleen Histon left her job three years ago to make cheese full-time on the farm while her husband works off farm to help financially support their ambition of a self-sustaining cheese making business.

Michael Histon reflected: ”We’re one of the smaller commercial sheep dairies in the country. We could and need to expand, but compliance with upcoming changing federal regulations has caused us to pause for awhile and take stock.”

It is a critical time for Shepherds Manor Creamery. Micheal Histon concluded: “We set ourselves a goal of sustaining profitability at seven years. That’s now here; the coming months will be crucial.”

John Wilkes

John Wilkes
Freelance journalist

John Wilkes is a former UK Sheep producer now living in Washington DC. His experience in both the UK and USA gives him a unique perspective on livestock and food production.

Nowadays he writes and consults about livestock and agriculture. He also hosts a broadcast radio program called The Whole Shebang on Heritage Radio Network from Brooklyn, New York.

John is a board member of The Livestock Conservancy in the U.S. and a member of The American Sheep Industry Association.