University of Wisconsin Center for Cooperatives
Wisconsin Sheep Dairy Cooperative
For Immediate Release: For more information:
June 26, 2001 Mark Kastel 608-625-2042
STRUM, WISCONSIN: Tom and Laurel Kieffer farm near this small rural community in Trempealeau County, south of Eau Claire. Like many other dairy farmers in Western Wisconsin that graze their livestock, they mend fences, move animals, and milk twice a day in a modern parlor.
However, if you visit their farm or examine their financial records you will discover a few obvious breaks with tradition. Most importantly, their milk is in great demand and through their cooperative customers are willing to pay an economically sustainable price of more than $60/cwt for their milk. Yes, the other obvious difference you will notice is that Tom, Laurel, and their family… milk sheep.
"Our co-op, The Wisconsin Sheep Dairy Cooperative (WSDC), was formed in 1996. In recent years, we have sold the cooperative’s entire production of sheep milk every year," Tom stated. The Kieffers, in their mid-forties, started milking sheep in 1997 after being involved in lamb and wool production. He has been a board member of the cooperative for over 4 years and currently serves as its treasurer.
The WSDC is the largest sheep dairy cooperative in North America. "This year, for the first time, demand for milk has significantly outstripped production. Although we are increasing our production per animal and adding additional ewes within our member-farms, we need to actively reach out to new producers to join us," Kieffer added.
The history of sheep dairying and cheese production in the United States is just over a decade old. Most sheep milk cheese in this country is produced in small quantities in farmstead plants. Much of this production takes place in New England, Wisconsin, and on the West Coast. Sheep milk cheese has been highly prized in Europe and the Middle East for centuries and is widely imported into the United States, accounting for more than 97% of the sheep milk cheeses on the U.S. market. Readers will be most familiar with Roquefort, an identity-preserved French blue cheese, popular in cooking or as a table cheese. But there are many others, including Manchego, Ossau-Iraty, Pecorino Romano, and traditional Feta.
The United States is now on the map as a source for world-class sheep milk cheese. In Wisconsin, Mary and Dave Falk, who farm near Grantsburg and have a small artisanal cheese plant on their farm, were recognized by the American Cheese Society as "best of show" in their 2000 competition. Falk’s Trade Lake cheeses are served in some of the best restaurants in America. More recently, other plants in Wisconsin have enthusiastically entered the rapidly expanding area of producing and marketing sheep milk cheeses, as well as cheeses containing blends of sheep milk with cow and/or goat milk.
This year, at the 2001 United States Championship of Cheese Making, held in Green Bay, the Old Chatham Sheep Herding Company won best of show and probably won more awards, in more different categories, than any other cheesemaker.
"We have a long-term relationship supplying milk to Old Chatham in New York," said Mark Kastel, a La Farge–based cooperative business development consultant who has worked with the sheep dairy co-op for the past 2 1/2 years. "We have proven to be a reliable supplier, to some extent the only commercial-scale supplier, of very high-quality sheep milk in North America, Kastel added."
Over the past few years, with financial support from the Wisconsin Departments of Agriculture and Commerce, the cooperative has successfully diversified by adding sheep-milk cheese production. "Due to the value of the milk, sheep cheese is always going to be more expensive," said Kastel. "We have learned from the marketplace that producing average-quality cheese will not build a sustainable market for our products. In competing with European imports, it is incumbent upon us to create world-class cheeses if we are to succeed."
Some countries in Europe and the Middle East actually produce more fine cheese from sheep and goat milk than from cow milk. This incredibly rich, flavorful milk is the start for what many consider to be the finest cheeses in the world.
The cooperative has begun an active campaign to recruit additional farmers. Most existing co-op members have had a long-term interest in lamb and wool production and, at some point in time, diversified into milking. Other co-op members have successfully made this their first venture into farming. Now, the cooperative is also receiving interest from cow dairy producers who look at sheep milk production as a way to diversify and remain at a family-scale of operation. In some cases, new prospective members have exited the cow dairy business but still have a set of existing buildings and the infrastructure needed to begin milking sheep.
"Just like farmers who milk cows, the common denominator for our members is a strong affection for the animals and the desire to operate a successful livestock enterprise," according to Yves Berger, the University of Wisconsin-Madison sheep-dairy research specialist based in Spooner. "After 10 years of development in genetics and animal husbandry practices, our young sheep dairy industry here in Wisconsin is beginning to come of age," said Berger. A native of France, Berger has been helping sheep producers in this country improve their flocks as director of the sheep program at the University of Wisconsin's research station in Spooner. There, as many as 280 sheep are milked daily during the season. He is also a member of the WSDC's board of directors. Berger and others in this country have worked hard to obtain superior genetics from Europe to improve breeding programs in the United States. This has resulted in tremendous increases in milk production and profitability for Wisconsin farmers.
Farmers who are interested in investigating the options of sheep dairy production on their farms are encouraged to contact: the Wisconsin Sheep Dairy Cooperative at 715-877-2845 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more information:
This year co-op member farms will be milking anywhere from 30 to 300 animals a day. Members readily share ideas and knowledge with new members to help them get through the start-up phase. "We’ve all been there," says Tom Kieffer. Tom and his family milk over 200 ewes per day. When considering sheep dairying, Tom found site, equipment, and other facility considerations much more manageable for a 150-pound ewe versus a 1500-pound cow.
Co-op members milk anywhere from 3 to 8 months throughout the year, depending on personal preference and the quality of genetics in their flocks. Domestic breeds have average lactations of 90 to 120 days. Introduction of European genetics into the flock can increase the lactation period to as much as 275 days. Year-round milking is optional with a year-round breeding scheme, though most co-op members choose to go dry for at least a few months to catch up on other farm projects and prepare for lambing.