We never expected to get sheep. Mr BirdCat would say now and then that he wouldn’t mind if we got one as a lawn mower, but that’s about as far as it went. This week, we welcomed two East Friesian ewes home after a three hour drive with them inside the back of our car….
We knew from the start that we’d like a dairy animal, and figured that a cow would fit the bill nicely. The city council here doesn’t allow goats, and we didn’t even consider sheep. It wasn’t until we had problems with our dairy cow, and asked around about the best ways to fix our half acre paddock, that someone suggested dairy sheep instead. Small (and thus easier to handle than even a miniature cow), and a lot easier on the land, dairy sheep seemed to be the perfect fit!
What About Dairy Sheep Milk? What Does it Taste Like?
Well…we have no clue O_O Turns out, it’s actually a lot easier around here to find dairy sheep, than it is to find sheep’s milk! After reading as much information as we could on it, we decided to just jump in anyway. Mr BirdCat and I both like goat’s milk (which a lot of people we’ve talked to don’t like, and was their main concern that sheep milk would be the same), as well as raw cow’s milk. From the sound of it, sheep milk is somewhere in-between, more like cow’s milk, but a lot creamier. The farmer we bought the sheep off of also gave us a block of sheep milk cheese that he made, and we both really like that. Should be safe — we’ve got about a year and a half before we give our review!
Why East Friesians?
We pretty much had two choices of breed in this area unless we wanted to travel even further (as it was they were about three hours away, and they were the closest we could find!). Awassi, which are a fat-tailed sheep originally from the Syro-Arabian desert (and thus used to harsh conditions), or the East Friesians which are originally from Germany.
The Awassi sheep around here are considered rare breed, and go for double to triple the cost of an East Friesian. Their wool isn’t as high a quality, and I was told they have to be bred with other fat tailed sheep? I’ve read reports saying they are very friendly, but talked to a dairy sheep breeder who said they’ve seen a lot of trouble with them as they can be quite aggressive, so they don’t allow them in their flock.
East Friesians definitely aren’t as hardy as the Awassi breed. In particular with the Australian climate, they’re affected by the sun, and prone to skin cancer! So they need adequate protection from the sun. They’re well known to be very gentle and friendly, which definitely fits in line with what we’d like. They’re also considered one of the best breeds for milk, producing around 300-600 litres of milk over a 200-300 day lactation. A jersey cow could produce that much in around a month (if my math is correct), which is great if you’ve got a big family, but there’s just two of us, and I’d be worried a lot of it would end up going to waste!
It took a little bit to settle on the names, but finally we decided on Freya, and Merida.
Freya is a bigger and I believe a bit older, so is more wary. She’s yet to eat out of our hands, and for the first couple of days, would angrily stomp her little hoof at us whenever we came close. If we need to grab Merida for any reason, she won’t go far, and will give us little growly baa’s to let us know she isn’t happy. She’s still quite wary of us, but doesn’t run away when we come near anymore. Bit by bit, but she’ll have no choice but to get used to us in the future, as we’ll be milking her!
Merida is the smaller of the two, and definitely a lot more curious and trusting. Already, she’ll happily eat grain from our hands, and enjoy a little head scratch. She’s not as nervous around our dog Milo, and definitely is curious about the chickens, stepping up to look at them whenever they make their way into the pen. We’ll more than likely train her as our “lead” sheep, as she’s already proven easier to work with. They definitely both have their own personalities!
At the moment, the sheep are sharing Mort’s pen (had a little rocky start with Mort not wanting to let them into the shelter, but all are happy now!). The framework is done for their own shed shelter that would have room for two stalls (for when they have lambs), and a milking stanchion — all it needs is a roof and walls. We’re also planning on building them a sheep tractor so they can safely be out in the paddock, as well as help the pasture by strip/rotational/intensive grazing using regenerative agriculture methods.
The lambs are both only a couple of months old now, so it’ll be a while before we get any milk! We’ll more than likely breed them to a Dorper, as they’re much more local and common. The lambs will be sold after being weaned. I wouldn’t mind keeping a ewe lamb at some point and seeing how the milk production compares, as the dairy sheep breeder I spoke to said they’ve had a lot of success with those crosses, and it makes for a hardier sheep. Time will tell!
We’ll use the milk for drinking, as well as cheese, butter, and ice cream, general cooking, etc. The sheep also produce wool that we’ll be able to use (drop spindle, anyone?), and the lambs should sell for enough to cover the ewe’s feed cost. I reckon we’ll still have far too much cheese and butter than we’ll use, so it’ll also provide great barter material!
Do you have any tips or tricks for keeping sheep? Any experiences you’d like to share? Let us know in the comments below!