University of Wisconsin Center for Cooperatives

Making an Industry Possible: Wisconsin Sheep Dairy Co-op

By Jody Padgham,
UWCC Outreach Specialist

One of my first duties as a new Outreach Specialist at the University of Wisconsin Center for Co-ops was to attend a strategic planning meeting for the Wisconsin Sheep Dairy Cooperative (WSDC) in the spring of 1999. Sitting and listening to the discussion and comments in the warm schoolhouse in Tilden, Wis, I was very impressed by the commitment and enthusiasm expressed by the members of this young co-op. By using the co-op to market together, this group of dynamic individuals is forging a new industry in Wisconsin, and projects much potential for the expansion of the sheep milk market in the state.

Milking sheep is a fairly new activity in Wisconsin, with first commercial production starting in the early 1980’s. With seasonal production and low volume per animal, producers need a fairly large flock (300+) to provide a farm’s sole income. However, as one aspect of a diversified system, and with a good marketing network, milking sheep provides a significant addition to the financial bottom line. The WSDC allows both full and part-time farmers the opportunity to add sheep dairying to their production systems, by taking on the marketing, distribution and quality standardization of the sheep milk.

The first sheep dairies in Wisconsin marketed independently to a diversity of cheese processors that were experimenting with sheep cheese lines. Consistency in quality and volume were problems, and many processors dropped their sheep cheese explorations. With a rise in consumer interest in imported sheep cheeses in the past two decades, increased potential for local production developed, expanding the need for consistent supply and quality of sheep milk. Acting in response to this market need, in 1996 the Wisconsin Sheep Dairy Cooperative was started.

Most producer co-ops start with the volunteer effort of a few dedicated people. At a 1996 meeting called in Eau Claire, WI to talk about a need for consistent quality and increased quantity of milk for Montchevre’s sheep cheese product expansion (Belmont, WI), five producers stepped forward to explore the possibilities of a co-op. After many meetings, long hours and research for a feasibility study, the group of original producers from the Eau Claire group decided to support the plan of the steering committee and incorporate as a sheep milk marketing cooperative in the fall of 1996.

WSDC’s role as an important conduit for quality sheep milk has quickly developed over the past four years. With annual sales growing from 45,000 pounds of milk in 1996 to 250,000 from 13 producer members during the 2000 season, the co-op currently markets fresh and frozen milk to cheese plants in Wisconsin, New York and Vermont. "Because the co-op takes care of all the paperwork, transportation, quality and quantity concerns, it makes things a lot easier for both farmers and cheese manufacturers. " Dan Guertin, President of WSDC explains. "With the co-op as a marketing tool, members can focus on breeding and production, where many producers feel their strengths lie."

The co-op plays many roles for its producer members. Uniform quality standards have been an important element of WSDC’s mission, and co-op board members visit each member farm to instruct them on proper milk handling and shipping procedures. In May of 1998 WSDC became a licensed U.S. dairy plant, transferring full responsibility for inspection, quality control and licensing to the co-op. This umbrella plant status saves individual farms from the paperwork of filing as a patron of each cheese processor to whom their milk is sold. The co-op coordinates pick-ups and deliveries of milk (the majority of which is sold frozen in dairy bags) and negotiates annual contracts with the cheese plants. Using stringent cleanliness and quality standards for its producers, the co-op can guarantee delivery of large quantities of very high quality milk to its customers.

The co-op has chosen to grow at a moderate pace and offer services with low overhead, making choices to invest in infrastructure very cautiously. This plan has allowed co-op members to invest in the co-op at a steady pace, with an annual membership fee and a small payment to the co-op per pound of milk sold. This summer the co-op received its second Agricultural Development and Diversification Grant from the WI Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection. This grant is being used to explore new product development for the co-op, including potential joint ventures with existing processors and the creation of the co-op’s own branded product. Growth of the co-op into these new areas will be funded in part by additional member investments and has the potential of bringing additional value-added returns to co-op members.

The Wisconsin Sheep Dairy Co-op has proven that with the dedication of a few hard working volunteers, a coordinated response to a market opening can expand that opening and have benefit for many producers. Now that the WSDC is up and running, the opportunity for growth in the sheep milk market is significant. "We see very good prospects for dramatically expanding the market for sheep milk in Wisconsin" Dan Guertin says. "Because of the co-op, cheese processors are exploring new product lines, increasing the demand for quality sheep milk."

Current members are willing to share knowledge with new producers, and encourage farmers to consider joining the co-op. For more information, please contact the Wisconsin Sheep Dairy Co-op at N50768 County Rd D, Strum WI 54770, or email Dan Guertin directly at shepride@mn.mediaone.net

Jody Padgham is an Outreach Specialist at the University of Wisconsin Center for Cooperatives, a part of University of Wisconsin Cooperative Extension within the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. She can be reached at padgham@facstaff.wisc.edu or 608-262-0705


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