When and How to milk Sheep – Dairy Sheep Milk Production and Yield
The average female sheep can mate at an age of 7-9 months old (there are striking exceptions to these limits – some sheep may reach their reproductive age when they become 14 months old). The pregnancy period lasts about 5 months. Once the sheep gives birth, is starts producing milk right away, but it is better not milk it for the first 1-2 weeks (ask your seller and your vet about the specifications of the breed). The reason is that the newborn sheep really need this type of first milk (especially during the first 36 hours), which is most often unsuitable for humans. However, in large commercial sheep farms, newborn sheep are allowed to stay with their mother and lactate for only 36 hours. Then, they are separated from their mother and they are fed with various milk replacements, while their mother is milked twice a day.
1-2 weeks after birth, you can (and should) milk your animal for about 5-8 months, twice a day (morning and evening). In general, non-dairy sheep produce milk only for 4-5 months after birth, while selected dairy breeds can produce milk for up to 8 months, but the milk production can also be affected by other parameters (shortening of day length). The average non-dairy sheep can produce 200 lbs. (90 kg) of milk per year, while a selected dairy breed can produce 600-800 lbs. (272 – 362 kg) of milk annually.
You can milk your sheep by hand or through a milking machine (cost 200-700 $). In both cases, hygiene and sanitation is everything. We must first sterilize the milk bucket with boiled water. Then we must put the animal in the milking stand, immobilize her by gently locking her head and restrain the rear legs (this is not necessary if your sheep is calm). Many farmers offer grains to their sheep during the milking, so as to distract them and keep them busy. We must then wash with warm water the udder and teats of the sheep. This washing not only cleans the teats, but also relaxes the animal. Then we sweep the teats with a dry and clean paper towel and we start the milking session.
Milking by hand is wrongly related with pulling down the teats of the goats. Pulling the teats will definitely lead to an injury. Instead, a trapping and squeezing motion must be applied, most often with the thumb and the index finger. Milking by hand lasts on average 10-15 minutes per animal for an inexperienced farmer. Experienced farmers can milk an animal in 3-5 minutes. When we finish, we must wash again the teats with water, soaps or special solutions. Many farmers dip the animal’s teats in special antibacterial solutions after milking (you can contact your local licensed veterinarian for further instructions).
If we have purchased a milking machine, before and after every milking session we have to clean all the parts of the machine with a proper cleaner, according to manufacturer’s instructions. Most portable milking machines are comprised of the milking claws, the pump and of course the milk bucket. Keep in mind that in machine milking, we must always hand milk the first and the last drops of the teats for various reasons (check if there is any blood in the milk – check if the color of the milk is normal etc.). When we switch on the machine, milk is vacuumed out through the claws, into the lines and finally into the bucket. When we finish, we remove the claws and –as in hand milking- we may dip the animal’s teats in an antibacterial solution.
Keep also in mind that sheep often get dehydrated after the milking process, so we must offer them fresh water and hay when the milking is over.
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Sheep Milking and Dairy Sheep Management
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