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Dairy farmers expand milking options

November 30, 2006

Cow milk comes from just that -- milking cows. While many UW-River Falls students in the dairy program get their practice milking cows at the laboratory farms for work study, they have yet to try their hands on other animals.

Milking goats and, more recently, milking sheep, has become popular among the dairy farmers of Wisconsin, and the concept is being taught in the agriculture curriculum.

“In the late 1980s some people were milking sheep, but nowadays it has become more sophisticated,” said Gary Onan, an animal science professor who is heavily involved with the sheep dairy industry in Wisconsin.

Onan said there are many reasons milking goats and sheep caught on as a trend.

“Some people that do it like to work with smaller animals, like sheep,” he said. “Others were looking for a special product to sell and to make money off of it.”

Food science professor Ranee May, who has been doing extensive work with sheep and goat milk producers for the past 12 years, said this procedure is an economic incentive.

“Since sheep and goats are smaller than cows, there is less product to be sold,” May said. “However, the products that come from the sheep and goats is worth double in comparison to a cow.”

May said there are more than 120 milking goat farms and 11 milking sheep farms just in the state of Wisconsin.

“The demand is there,” May said. “The shift is going towards locally produced foods, and the markets are a niche for these groups.”

Onan said the procedure began with farmers milking goats and sheep as a last resort.

“There was a time when meat wasn’t selling very well and farmers were looking for other options,” Onan said. “In some cases, it was an afterthought.”

Spanish professor Terrence Mannetter said he doesn’t know much about the milking of these animals, but knows it is very popular in other parts of the world.

“I think that developing milk from other animals is a great idea,” he said.

Senior Erin Orgeman said when she first heard about it, she thought it was a joke.

“I guess I don’t know much about milking, but I think you can milk anything with nipples,” she said.

Junior Lindsey Cliff grew up near many farms and said dairy farming is a huge part of the economy in rural areas of Minnesota and Wisconsin.

“I think it would be hard to have a system to milk sheep or goats, because the milking systems for cows are pretty refined,” Cliff said. “The nutritional content of the milk from goats and sheep wouldn’t be the same as cows, so I’m not sure how that would impact people’s health.”

Though some UWRF students and faculty are skeptical about this trend, Onan said the procedure is widely accepted.

“There is support from the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture and from UWRF,” he said. “There is also acceptance of the product from the consumers.”

May said she agrees with Onan, but the support is not only coming from Wisconsin.

“Production is worldwide,” she said. “In Carolina and Georgia, it’s huge. They can ship to New York and make money off of their product. There is national support behind this from the milking sheep organization and the milking goat industry. It’s not just Wisconsin — it’s becoming worldwide.”

May also said consumers are in support of these products because they experiment with what foods they eat.

“Consumers seem to want more natural types of foods and therefore might be more willing to experiment,” she said. “Some people even raise their kids on these types of products.”

Onan said he supports the development of these industries so much that he will continue to offer this information in the courses that he teaches.

“I intend to address goat and sheep dairying in the sheep production class,” he said. “This class may be revised somewhat in the future to include more goat information in general, but for now a small amount will be included in the current class.”

May said she also plans to address goat and sheep milking in her curriculum.

“I do incorporate alternative species of milk in my dairy processing courses,” she said. “This has been going on for several years, and I do plan to continue.”

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