Thursday, April 29, 2010

The Great Sheep-Milking Experiment

Last year, when Tansy lost her lamb at birth, I decided to try milking her a little bit, to get milk for making sheep's milk soap.  Twice a day, I'd tie her to a post with a dish of grain under her nose, and try to milk her while she leaped and kicked and struggled.  While I did end up getting enough milk for a small amount of soap, the experience was not a pleasant one for either Tansy or myself.

This year, for some unknown reason, Tundra lost both of her lambs at birth.  I have no idea what happened.  When I found them, they looked fully formed and uninjured, but dead, as if they had never gotten up after being born.

Anyway, since Tundra would have no lambs to nurse, I decided that I'd milk her, but this year I'd use the shearing stand to restrain her.  The shearing stand turned out to be a great idea.  Unlike Tansy last year, Tundra stood still for the milking.  However, it had been about a day since her lambs had been born, so she was already starting to dry up.  Everyone says that the more you milk, the more the ewe will produce, so I kept at it for a week, but Tundra's production was still very low.  Unfortunately, me with the Udderly EZ Milker twice a day is just not the same as a pair of hungry lambs, as far as stimulating milk production.

But my sheep's milk soap has been selling quite well, and I want to make a much larger supply of it this year.  So I needed sheep's milk.  Lots more than Tundra was producing.

So, the Great Sheep-Milking Experiment was born.

What if, instead of milking one sheep twice a day for the whole summer, I instead milked ALL the sheep once or twice and was done with it?  After all, the other ewes were actively feeding their babies, so I knew they were producing much more milk than Tundra was.

So, I rounded up all the ewes whose lambs were at least a couple of weeks old, and separated them from their lambs overnight.  What a racket they made, bawling for each other!  They could see each other and touch noses through the fence, though, so they could each see that the other wasn't lost.

In the morning, armed with the Udderly EZ Milker, I set out to milk 18 ewes who had never been milked before.  Little did I know it was going to take most of the day! 

I had to round up the ewes into a catch pen, then physically drag each one to the shearing stand, fasten her in, then crank the stand up to a comfortable height.  Wash the udder, and attempt the milking.  Some of the ewes kicked, but I was able to use the milker with one hand while encircling the kicking foot with my other hand, to guide it away from kicking the milker.  Once the kicking ewes discovered their struggles weren't working, they eventually settled down and stood still.

Over all, I was surprised on how well behaved most of the sheep were, but it was still hard work manhandling them on and off the stand and taking them out afterward to the paddock where their hungry babies waited.

Between each milking, I took that ewe's milk inside, filtered and labeled it, and put it in a Ziploc bag in the freezer.  When I make my soap, I like to be able to tell my customers exactly which sheep provided the milk for that soap.  So now my freezer has lots and lots of labeled bags!

I've been told that experienced milkers who milk their Icelandics regularly can get 1 quart per milking.  My average was probably closer to half that, but for a first attempt I feel like the sheep and I accomplished quite a lot.  Because I kept a list of how much each ewe produced, I also have a better idea of which ones are the most worth milking again next time.

Mostly, I already knew which of my ewes were the milkiest (Paris, as expected, was the best.  She gave me 3.5 cups).  But there were a few surprises, a couple of adult ewes I had not realized were as milky as they were, and one yearling first-time mother who gave as much as the adults. 

So in addition to getting enough milk to make more than 600 bars of soap, I also got valuable information about the productivity levels of my ewes.

I'll probably do it again one more time, to meet my goal of how much soap I want to make this year.  I won't do so many ewes at a time again, though.  It took me so long to milk them all, I felt it was too uncomfortable for both the ewes and the babies to have to wait so long.

I ache from all the exertion yesterday, but when I think that with just one day of hard work I got more than half of my milk-supply goal for the year, I think the sheep milking experiment was a big success!


V.R. Leavitt said...

Wow!! Busy day but it sounds like a successful experiment. :-)

Poetryqn said...

I'm just picturing this...:-)

Sounds like you and the sheep did a great job! Hey, thinking aloud (and being Italian) can you make cheese from the milk of Icelandic sheep? Artisanal cheese is really big here in NY...

Just sayin' (like you haven't got enough to do already!)

Nancy Chase said...

Yes, artisanal cheese is another thing that people do with Icelandic sheep's milk. Sheep's milk is supposedly great for cheese because it's higher in milk solids than goat or cow milk, so you get more cheese per amount of milk.

But there is NO WAY I want to get into the huge investment of money, time, and equipment necessary to do that.

The laws and requirements surrounding selling milk or milk products for food are way more than I want to have to deal with.