Sheep milk is used for producing specialty cheeses, and the United States imports more than 50% of the world's specialty cheeses. So, the country has a growing market for commercial dairy sheep farming. It's still a small market, but it's got huge potential. So, how can we get ewe to produce more milk?
Dairy sheep will produce more milk if their health and nutrition are well managed. Weaning lambs earlier and adjusting milking intervals can also help to increase milk production in lactating ewes. Additionally, crossbreeding high-yield dairy sheep with hardier breeds can increase milk production.
If you've got ewes, there are ways to get more milk out of them without pumping them full of hormones. Instead, you can consider improving their diet and lifestyle without compromising their health. Ideally, you're aiming for happy, healthy ewes that produce oxytocin (a happy hormone) when milked because more oxytocin means more milk.
1) Crossbreeding Sheep To Increase Milk Production
While many dairy sheep breeds exist, crossbreeding top milk producers with other sheep breeds has benefits. The most common dairy sheep breeds in the United States are the East Friesian, Lacaune, and Awassi. However, many others are bred for their milk production.
East Friesian and Lacaune sheep are commonly crossbred with wool and meat breeds for increased milk production. This is partially due to the limited gene pool of both breeds in the United States. However, they are usually crossbred to improve lamb survival rates while keeping milk yield high.
Another study showed that East Friesian and Awassi crossbred ewes produce more milk than purebred Awassi ewes. But interestingly, despite the increase in milk yield, the average composition of the milk hadn't changed much.
2) Weaning Lambs For Increased Milk Production
How a dairy farmer weans the lambs of lactating ewes can also impact milk production levels. Research has shown that weaning lambs earlier will increase milk production and lower the total feeding and care costs of weaned lambs.
The table below compares the findings of a study published in 2014. It shows the difference in milk production in ewes and lamb-rearing costs for lambs weaned on Day 1 after parturition compared to those weaned later.
Ewe Lactation length (days)
Machine milking period (days)
Commercial milk yield (lbs.)
Total lamb & milk receipts ($)
Table 1: Ewe lactation and economics of three weaning systems (Source: jasbsci)
3) Adjust Milking Intervals To Increase Milk Production
Another way to increase milk production in ewes is to adjust the milking intervals. Various experiments have been conducted by the University of Wisconsin-Madison's Spooner Agricultural Research Station to this effect.
One study compared different milking intervals for multiparous East Friesian crossbred ewes for the first 30 days of lactation. The control group was milked twice daily, while the study group was milked thrice daily. Their lambs were weaned at 24 hours. After the thirty-day trial, all ewes were milked twice daily.
Their findings were as follows:
- Ewes milked three times daily produced 15.2% more milk than ewes milked twice daily.
- There were no residual effects on milk yield after the thirty-day trial. The ewes who were previously milked three times a day continued to produce more milk than the control group.
Another Spooner Agricultural Research Station study compared milk yield in ewes milked every 16 hours instead of every 12 hours. The trial comprised 48 third lactation East Friesian crossbred ewes and started at day 90 of lactation.
Twenty-four ewes were kept on a 12-hourly milking interval (6am and 6pm daily). The other twenty-four ewes were milked every sixteen hours (on a 2-day cycle starting at 6am, then 10pm on day 1, then 2pm on day 2). Their lactation performance was monitored for 90 days. The findings of this study were as follows:
- The ewes milked at 16-hour intervals produced 28% more milk during the 6am milking.
- The two groups didn't differ in total production or nutrient value during the trial period.
Milking can be reduced by 25% in mid-to-late lactation without a decrease in total milk production because dairy sheep milk is "cisternal."
4) Manage Dairy Ewes' Nutrition For Increased Milk Production
The nutritional needs of ewes vary between dry, gestation, and lactation periods. For example, a ewe needs more energy and protein during lactation than at any other stage. So, knowing what to feed your dairy ewes and when will help to optimize their milk production.
Supplement Feed During The Last Two Months Of Gestation
Ideally, you should supplement a ewe's diet in the last two months (last trimester) of gestation to ensure her nutritional needs are met. The type of feed must meet the high nutrient needs of the growing lamb(s) in the uteri while considering the ewe's limited digestion capacity. This is because the ewe's digestive tract is squashed by her growing uterus during the last two months of gestation.
Pregnant ewes' feed should be supplemented with good quality food that favors rapid digestion and is not heavy. Doing so will prevent malnutrition and improve the chances of healthy lambing. Additionally, the good quality feed will enhance the ewe's colostrum production after lambing and trigger good milk flow because of increased oxytocin production.
The supplemented feed should have a good balance of protein and energy without excess. Excess energy can lead to ewe infertility, while excessive protein can harm the ewe's liver or cause mortality.
Additionally, pregnant and lactating ewes need increased Calcium, Phosphorus, and Magnesium in their diets. Hypocalcemia (milk fever) is caused by a deficiency in calcium at the end of gestation, and it is not easily reversed.
Therefore, each ewe with a lambing percentage greater than 200% should receive at least 0.75 lbs. of a mixture of grains per day during the last two months of gestation.
Feeding Dairy Ewes During Lactation
Just after lambing, ewes tend to lose their appetite for a while. Additionally, ewes lose fat reserves in the last trimester of gestation. Therefore, it is recommended that lactating ewes graze and get a feed-concentrated supplement to cover lactation needs, restore fat reserves, and increase milk production.
Stage of Production
Dry Matter Intake/day (lb.)
Total Digestible Nutrients (TDN)
Last 4 Weeks of Gestation
(130-150% lamb crop)
(180-225% lamb crop)
First 8 weeks of lactation
Table 2: Nutrition requirements for pregnant and lactating ewes
While pasture-fed lactating ewes will produce more milk, the choice of pasture is essential. Ewes that have just lambed should not eat young grass as it is often deficient in Magnesium. Magnesium deficiency (hypomagnesemia) can lead to grass tetany and ewe mortality. The grass shouldn't be rich in legumes either, as the gas buildup from legumes can cause digestive problems.
Alfalfa hay is an excellent option for feeding lactating ewes. In addition, supplementing high-quality hay with a grain-protein supplement like a corn-soybean meal is also recommended. Supplements with higher rumen undegradable protein (RUP) will most effectively increase milk production.
Where pastures are low quality, dairy farmers should consider supplementing lactating ewes' diets with diverse plant-derived oil-enriched pellets. For example, research shows that Awassi ewes supplemented with oil-infused pellets and rumen (EPA + DHA) can produce up to 30% more milk despite grazing on low-quality pasture.
5) Healthy Dairy Ewes Will Produce More Milk
Maintaining good health care for dairy ewes is directly linked to increased milk production. However, the more milk a ewe produces, the increased chances of health problems. For example, a ewe with milk fever, ketosis, hypomagnesemia, or mastitis won't produce much milk.
The good news is that these ailments can be avoided or prevented with good health care. For dairy sheep to be healthy and produce milk, they need the following:
- Proper nutrition during gestation and lactation,
- Sound milking practices (including hygiene and not over-milking),
- Appropriate housing and ventilation,
- Veterinary care as needed, and
- Adequate sun exposure.
Lactating well-nourished and disease-free ewes will produce more milk for you. You can increase milk production through selective breeding programs and giving your ewes top-notch nutrition and care. Additionally, you can increase the milk production in sheep by weaning their lambs earlier and adjusting milking intervals according to their lactation period.
NCBI: Supplementing Dairy Ewes Grazing Low Quality Pastures with Plant-Derived and Rumen-Protected Oils Containing Eicosapentaenoic Acid and Docosahexaenoic Acid Pellets Increases Body Condition Score and Milk, Fat, and Protein Yields