Friday, May 6, 2016

Dairy Sheep: Our Milking Routine

Getting started with dairy sheep has been quite the experience and we are finally reaping the rewards! Last weekend we fully weaned Sally's and Doughnut's lambs and I started milking twice a day. This is only our first year and we are far from experts but since there isn't a ton of information on milking sheep like there is with milking cows or goats I wanted to share our experiences with you. Here is what we did this year, our plan for next year, and our daily milking routine.

This Year

Our initial plan was to start separating the lambs at night by 2-3 weeks old and then milk in the morning. Then fully wean by 4-8 weeks old depending on the size of the lambs. For multiple reasons, that plan did not work for us.

For starters we don't have a good setup in place for separating the lambs at night. Before spring pasture is available we keep our Icelandic flock in a paddock close to the house with a 3-sided shelter. They don't mind the weather and are a bit more wild then our milkers. The ewes we milk we keep in a large run-in type building. It has a large pen/stall for them that my husband built and has an attached outside yard for them. The rest of the run-in houses the stanchion and tractor equipment. Since we don't have an official barn there aren't stalls or extra room to separate the sheep.

Another reason is that when separated the ewes and lambs are super loud. Super loud. All. Night. Long. Our property is very narrow and in a semi-suburban area. So even though we have seven acres, we still have close neighbors. I tried separating them one night and didn't try again. They were too close and just called to each other all night long. I ended up going out in the middle of the night to reunite them. I didn't want to be THAT neighbor.

The last reason was that things just got hectic. Losing Sprinkles and her lamb to tetanus was an emotional blow and with everything else that goes on in spring I just felt drained for awhile. Milking is a big commitment and I wasn't ready to add that on until recently.

Before and After Milking

So now I am milking Sally (Icelandic/Finn) and Doughnut (East Friesian/Lacaune) twice a day. The Icelandic flock is out on grass 24/7 now so we put their lambs out with them and are keeping the dairy sheep close to the house. Now they are far enough apart that they don't call to each other and after a few days both parties have accepted their new normal. Unfortunately, I am not getting their full/peak production. I didn't keep up with stripping them out while they had their lambs on them and I didn't start milking until after six or so weeks. From what I could tell the ewes were already starting the weaning process and not letting the lambs nurse as much. It's a bummer, but lesson learned. I think Doughnut has the potential to make a lot more milk. Hopefully, next year she'll have twins to stimulate her milk supply more and I'll have my butt in gear by then.

Next Year's Tentative Plan

There seem to be three main ways people go about milking sheep. Wean cold turkey at thirty(ish) days and begin milking, milk-share with the lambs by separating at night (or day), or pull the lambs after a day or two and bottle/bucket feed so milking can begin immediately.

Since we don't have a great way to separate the lambs for the night or in general with our winter set-up we are thinking about pulling the dairy sheep's lambs by a few days old and bottle feeding. It would make a bit more work in the beginning but later we could run the whole flock together and never have to go through the weaning process (from mom) with the lambs. I am a bit worried that without the lambs we wouldn't get the ewe's peak production so I would probably milk multiple times a day at first to try and build up her supply.

I don't know if this will actually work out better but we need to try something different from this year. We will also be milking Doughnut's daughter, Caramel, in addition to Sally and Doughnut.

Our Daily Milking Routine

I am currently milking by hand. It takes me about ten minutes per ewe to actually milk but including prep and clean-up after it takes about 45-60 minutes every morning and evening. I'm still a newbie and I hope to cut down on the time some. Doughnut milks out pretty easily but Sally is a pain to milk. Her teats make it difficult to hand milk and she is very flighty. Once we can find a better replacement she'll be back out with our Icelandic flock.

So here is my milking routine. A lot of my information came from the Fiasco Farm site.

My Supplies:

  • wide-mouth quart or half-gallon canning jars
  • canning funnel
  • reusable coffee filter
  • plastic wide-mouth lids
  • paper towels or wash rags
  • bucket for soapy water
  • dish soap
  • bleach (this isn't something I normally like to use but I haven't found a better way to sanitize yet)
Milking Steps:
  1. Clean: I scrub all of my jars, lids, funnel, filter, and bucket with hot soapy water then rinse well. Ideally, I do this right when I am done milking so everything is ready to go for next time. 
  2. Sanitize: I fill my bucket with a gallon of hot water and a tablespoon of bleach. I then let my jars, funnel, lids, and filter soak for at least thirty seconds. Usually longer. Then I let everything air dry on a rack. I do this step when I first get up in the morning (am milking) or during dinner (pm milking) so everything has a chance to dry a little.
  3. Before I head out to milk I add a squirt of dish soap to my bleach water and will use that to wash the udders.
  4. I take everything outside. I use a plastic tote to carry everything or use the stroller. If I know I may take longer than usual I also bring a bucket of ice water out to place my jars into after milking to begin the cooling process. 
  5. Once outside I measure out everyone's grain. I feed a mixture of peas, oats, and barley. Doughnut gets close to a pound and Sally gets half a pound. Sally being half Icelandic is much more efficient with her food. I add any supplements they need that day at this time. (Dolomite, herbs, wormers, etc...)
  6. I halter one of the girls and put her in the stanchion. Since they know treats are in the stanchion they hop right up. 
  7. Clean the udder. I use a fresh paper towel to clean the udder. I don't double dip in the bucket. Then I dry thoroughly with a paper towel. I shy away from using paper towels normally but with milking I want everything to be super clean since we use the milk raw. The cleaning/massaging also helps with letdown. This post has great info for triggering letdown in sheep.
  8. Begin milking. I milk 3-4 squirts onto the stand to clean out the teat and to check for any abnormalities in the milk. If everything looks good, I begin milking into my jar. I sit behind the ewe and milk with my left hand on her right teat and hold the jar in my right hand. Then the reverse to milk the other side. I switch back and forth multiple times until she is completely milked out. I will try to get a video posted next week to demonstrate the process. 
  9. I follow up with a homemade teat dip and then lead the ewe back to her pen or out to pasture. Then I repeat the process with my other ewe.
  10. I pour the remaining bucket of wash water on to the milking stand and give it a good scrub so it will be clean for the next milking. I gather my things and head inside.
  11. Once inside, I filter the milk into sanitized jars, label with date and am/pm, then place into the freezer for 30-60 minutes to speed up the cooling process. I set the timer on my phone so I don't forget them in the freezer. 
  12. Then I clean everything. Everything gets a rinse with cool water first to remove the milk and prevent milkstone. Then a good wash/scrub with HOT soapy water and rinsed well. I allow everything to air-dry. Then for the next milking I begin with step 2. 
  13. A couple times a month I also soak everything in a vinegar water solution to remove any milkstone that may have formed and I also use a stronger bleach solution to disinfect the coffee filter. 

This is what works for me now. I'm sure it will evolve over time. What does your milking routine look like?

P.S. This post may be linked up with the following blog hops: Monday- The Art of Homemaking MondaysMostly Homemade Mondays, Tuesday- The Homestead Blog Hop, Wednesday- The Homemaking PartyHomestead Blog Hop, Thursday- Our Simple Homestead Blog Hop, Friday- From the Farm HopAwesome Life Friday, Saturday- Simply Natural Saturdays, Simple Saturdays.


  1. I'm intrigued with your milking of sheep! I didn't think it was a common practice. We are toying with the idea of goats, but think the milk may be too much. Per milking,how much does a sheep give and are they just like other mammals that continue producing so long as you keep milking?

    1. Sorry, I missed this comment earlier. The amount of milk really depends on the breed of sheep. Some sheep can give up to a gallon a day and others will only give a pint. You would need to talk with the breeder to find one that suits your needs. Their lactation isn't as long as a cow's or goat's, usually 6-9 months, again depending on breed. This site has a lot of good info