A Column Offered by WCMA Executive Director John Umhoefer
The future of the dairy sheep industry in the U.S. lies in frozen straws of semen and hard-fought efforts to bring productive genetics to American sheep farms from Lacaune stock in France and proven Assaf animals in Spain.
“We’ve had no activity for 20 years, and now all this. It’s a really exciting time for farms looking to improve their flocks,” Laurel Kieffer told WCMA. A long-time sheep farmer until last year, Kieffer is focused on marketing sheep milk cheeses and sits on the genetic improvement task force for the Dairy Sheep Association of North America or DSANA.
“All this” new activity, as Kieffer notes, is simultaneous work by DSANA and by budding entrepreneur Ms. J & Company in Wisconsin to build new flocks of productive stock, provide semen for direct sale to existing flocks around the country, and begin an official system of sire and production records for rams and ewes on farms willing to participate.
All this for an industry that retired University of Wisconsin professor Dave Thomas estimates at 250-275 dairy sheep farms across the nation, most in Wisconsin, New York, Vermont and New Hampshire.
It’s this small size, not consumer interest, that holds back growth in the dairy sheep industry, according to Wisconsin cheesemaker Bob Wills at Cedar Grove Cheese. “The market for sheep cheeses is growing, and there’s great product coming out of New York, New England, Wisconsin – but we can’t push sales because supply has been tight on the milk side.”
A pioneer in sheep farming and cheesemaking, Tom Clark, notes that the link between the future success of farms, and participation of cheesemakers, is crucial. “Cheesemakers have a vitally important role,” Clark told WCMA. “The price paid for sheep milk is lower than it should be, and cheesemakers need to build incentives for components – fat and protein – to allow farms to invest in new genetics.”
Clark, the founder of Old Chatham Sheepherding Company, spearheaded years of efforts through DSANA to gain USDA approval to bring Lacaune sheep semen into the U.S. this year. Twenty-two farms around the nation ordered about 900 frozen semen straws – one insemination per straw – from the French breed known for producing milk for Roquefort cheese.
Clark, 76, sold award-winning Old Chatham Sheepherding three years ago to Dave and Sally Galton, but himself purchased some of the French Lacaune semen to inseminate 50 ewes this fall on the farm he retains to provide breeding and milking stock for active milking farms. “If we can bring in high-quality genetics each year, we can gradually improve the productivity of the American flock.”
In the rolling hills of Green County, Wisconsin, a new dairy sheep farm, and new genetics venture, is rising on the site of a vintage Wisconsin dairy farm. Ms. J & Company, led by Mariana Marques de Almeida, Jeff Wideman and Shirley Knox, has acquired frozen semen from the Assaf breed now dominant in Spain.
“We look at this venture as a way to create new opportunities for today’s farms, and young farmers entering the industry,” Wideman, a Wisconsin Master Cheesemaker, told WCMA. “And we’re starting conversations with cheesemakers interested in a new sheep milk supply.”
The venture is taking shape this winter as a new, 1,000-lamb barn rises on the dairy cow farm Wideman’s parents purchased in 1951. Ms. J & Company’s leader “on the ground” is Mariana Marques de Almeida, senior animal scientist and breeding advisor, and the 300 ewes the company inseminated this fall will deliver lambs in February and March to populate the new barn. The goal is to build a flock that acquires the genetic profile of the productive Assaf breed in three to four generations. “We’re in this for the long haul,” said Marques de Almeida (who prefers to be called simply, Mariana).
Assaf is an established breed originating in Israel in 1955, according to the newly-published Handbook of Milk of Non-Bovine Animals. Its breed composition is five/eighths East Friesian and three/eighths Awassi, and Israel followed by Spain have made this their No. 1 breed.
“It’s the best milk-producing dairy sheep in the world,” Mariana noted. “The protein-to-fat ratio is excellent and an Assaf can deliver as much as 2,400 pounds of milk in a lactation season at 5-6 percent protein and 6-7 percent fat. It’s twice the milk per animal you might see in a U.S. flock.”
It took two years, and a lot of trust-building, to arrange a transfer of frozen semen from Spain to the U.S., Wideman explained. The Assaf Breeders Association and associated Semen Collection Center in Spain met the animal health protocols of USDA’s APHIS (Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service), and Wisconsin’s Department of Agriculture aided in communication between U.S. and Spanish bureaucracies. The shipment arrived earlier this year.
This is the first Assaf genetics to reach the U.S., Mariana said, and the sire and production records on this semen trace back through decades in Spain and Israel. As part of the strict protocol demanded by APHIS, Ms. J & Company must provide traceability for each lamb born during the next five years.
And with a second barn for milking ewes planned to rise in the next twelve months, Wideman noted that building an Assaf flock, rather than cheesemaking, is dominating their business plan. “Our farm will be a demonstration and teaching site, with Mariana’s expertise,” Wideman said. The venture will concentrate on selling Assaf semen and lambs and rams in successive generations, he explained, and will offer milk to other cheesemakers. “At this time the genetics is our focus, and that’s enough,” Wideman said.
Both groups, DSANA and Ms. J & Company, envision seeking more proven genetics in coming years and will ask farms to take lineage recording and milk production data to a new level. “We’re starting from scratch in the U.S. with data on rams and ewes,” Laurel Kieffer told WCMA. “Trying to convince farms with 50 ewes or less to begin to collect milk samples and data is an uphill journey,” she added.
Building a robust database will allow dairy sheep producers to benefit from outputs such as Estimated Breeding Value and Inbreeding Coefficient – using genetics to improve their bottom line.
At Ms. J & Company, Mariana agrees that genetic improvement and record-keeping are the future of the U.S. dairy sheep industry. “Our success will be the success of every farm that takes on these higher-producing animals,” she said.