Sustainable Dairy Solutions: Positive Impacts of Sheep Milk on the Environment

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Parts of Europe, the Mediterranean, and the Middle East have been milking sheep for thousands of years (much longer than cows), but the idea of sheep dairy is relatively new to New Zealand. Perhaps just as novel is the idea that sheep provide sustainable dairy solutions. 

Shoppers purchasing decisions are influenced by factors such as health, environmental and lifestyle choices. Sheep milk and sheep milk-based products are growing in popularity worldwide as people seek alternatives to bovine (cow) dairy. People are becoming more conscious of the environmental impact that products have, as well as wanting more nutritious, easier-to-digest dairy products.

In this article, we’ll cover some positive impacts of sheep milk on the environment and what Jones Family Farm is doing to improve our environmental sustainability. But first, let’s set the scene by taking a look at the industry as a whole and its economic impacts.

Table of Contents

    An Overview of The Global Sheep Dairy Industry

    The commercial dairy sheep industry is currently concentrated in Europe (particularly Spain and France) and the Mediterranean where, historically, they’ve been milking sheep for centuries. Estimates suggest there are more than 100 million sheep raised for milking purposes, with the current global volume of sheep milk produced approximately 10 million tonnes. 

    Globally, the sheep milk market was valued at almost NZD 10 billion in 2021 and is projected to reach 13 billion by 2028! The demand for premium alternative dairy products is growing by about 20 per cent a year.

    In 2021, over 10.5 tonnes of raw sheep milk was produced, making up only one per cent of total animal milk production.  However, this is a growing market with production increasing by seven per cent over the past 10 years (see graph above). We touched on primary drivers for this growth before; environmental concerns, health concerns, and a desire for more natural, sustainable food choices. 

    While cheese has always been the predominant sheep milk product consumed globally, in recent years, premium markets are calling for sheep milk-based yoghurt, fresh and UHT milk, infant formula and other nutritional supplements.

    Ref: FAOSTAT. Table showing the estimated worldwide production of sheep milk in tonnes. 
    Ref: FAOSTAT. Table showing the estimated worldwide production of sheep milk in tonnes. 

    An Overview of The New Zealand Sheep Dairy Industry

    Sheep dairy is in its relative infancy in New Zealand despite our country’s long history with wool and lamb farming. 

    In 2019, there were approximately 22,000 milking ewes in New Zealand spread over 18 farms. Expanding this industry through improving milk production in the South Island and the development of high-value dairy products has the potential to increase the economic contribution from NZD 20 million in 2019 to NZD 250 million within a decade. 

    If New Zealand’s total sheep dairy flock reaches 1 million ewes, which is approximately five per cent of our existing sheep numbers (including dairy and meat), and we improve our genetics to achieve an average of 400 litres of milk per sheep per year, we’ll be among the top global sheep dairy producers. 

    The wide-ranging beneficiaries of this industry growth include farmers, support businesses, logistics and transportation providers, packaging companies, and trades and services sectors. Ultimately, the entire New Zealand economy will benefit from the increase in revenue.

    Photo of Jones Family Farm's flock of milking ewes.
    Jones Family Farm’s flock of milking ewes.

    How Much Milk Do Sheep Produce in New Zealand?

    In New Zealand, average production results in 57 kg of milk solids in lactation per ewe per year. On average, New Zealand’s flocks are producing 130 L of milk per ewe per year with top ewes providing around 350 L per year.

    Sheep produce less milk on a liquid-litre basis than cows, however, sheep milk has a higher solids content. For example, sheep milk yield 18-25% cheese versus cow milk yield of 9-10% cheese. 

    What Sheep Can Be Milked?

    While lactating ewes of any breed can be milked, as with other livestock, specialised breeds result in a greater yield. The East Friesian is the most common dairy sheep worldwide, New Zealand included, producing an average of 130 L of milk per ewe per year.

    Jones Family Farm’s flock consists of East Friesians crossed with Lacaune and Manech tête rousse to improve their suitability for the South Island’s climate.

    Photo of two lambs drinking milk at Jones Family Farm
    Lambs drinking milk at Jones Family Farm

    Is Sheep Dairy Better For the Environment?

    Due to land use changes required for better environmental sustainability, there is a massive opportunity for the sheep dairy industry.

    Cow milk production in New Zealand has decreased over the past few seasons due to several factors. Such factors include unfavourable weather, sediment loss resulting in less suitable farmland for cows, rising costs, and labour shortages. 

    Sheep dairy farming lowers the impact on the environment as it can be sustainably run on a smaller land area than bovine farming (3.2 cows per Ha versus 12 sheep per Ha). It’s shown to result in lower nitrogen leaching losses due to smaller, less concentrated urine patches, a better soil matrix due to less compaction, shorter lactation periods, and lower feed consumption.

    Not only is sheep milk gentle on stomachs, but it’s also gentle on the environment – for every litre of cow milk produced, triple the amount of sheep milk can be made for the same carbon footprint.

    Matt Jones, Jones Family Farm

    Environmental Sustainability and Jones Family Farm

    Environmental sustainability and the impacts of sheep milk on the environment are important to us and to our customers. 

    We believe natural is best. Everyone should have access to dairy products that are good for their health and the environment. We support this by providing nutritious sheep milk products for people seeking healthier, more eco-friendly alternatives to traditional dairy.

    Research into the long-term environmental benefits of sheep dairy farming is essential.

    While few long-term studies on the impact of sheep milk on the environment in New Zealand exist, current studies highlight the potential positive effects of dairy sheep production systems. 

    Here’s a brief summary of key findings from studies in New Zealand so far:

    • Nitrogen losses to water can decrease by 10-50% by farming dairy sheep due to the smaller urine patches
    • Dry matter intake is critical to both nitrogen leaching and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in both dairy sheep and cows
    • The good effluent management practices from cow dairy can be replicated for sheep. For example, using effluent as a fertiliser when applied to the land
    • Per hectare, GHG emissions appear to be lower from dairy sheep

    As part of Sheep Milk New Zealand, some areas of research that Jones Family Farm is interested in include:

    • Examining contaminant loss to water and mitigating nitrogen leaching
    • Using dairy sheep as a diversification option from arable or dairy cow systems in nitrogen-stressed catchments
    • The analysis of greenhouse gas and the carbon footprint of sheep milking systems
    The impacts of sheep milk on the environment. An infographic showing that dairy cows release almost eight times more methane than dairy sheep.

    Decreasing Methane Emissions 

    Experiments suggest that supplementing a ewes’ diet with something like Asparagopsis seaweed increases the amino acids available for absorption in the small intestine. 

    In doing this, we see a more balanced amino acid composition allowing the body to use these nutrients more efficiently. 

    Consuming higher quality feeds means sheep eat less and their body uses nutrients more efficiently, in turn reducing methane emissions.

    See these sources for more information:

    Decreasing Methane Emissions in Sheep 

    Effects of Supplementing Rumen-Protected Methionine and Lysine on Milk Performance and Oxidative Status of Dairy Ewes

    Feed Supplements to Reduce Methane Emissions

    Decreased Water Usage

    We’re interested in helping with studies measuring the water quantity usage for sheep versus other animal and plant milk systems.

    Because sheep consume less than cows, it’s expected that converting to sheep dairy will help decrease the agricultural industry’s water usage.

    The Positive Impacts of Sheep Milk on the Environment

    Sheep dairy offers promising sustainable solutions that positively impact the land. As demand for alternative dairy rises, sheep milk products gain popularity due to their nutritional benefits and reduced environmental footprint. 

    While sheep dairy has a long history in certain regions, it’s still in its infancy in countries like New Zealand. However, the potential for the growing sheep milk industry is immense, with projections suggesting significant economic contributions.

    The industry has seen remarkable growth, with sheep milk production increasing by seven per cent over the past decade. This growth can be attributed to consumers’ growing awareness of environmental concerns, health considerations, and a preference for sustainable food. 

    Compared to cow dairy, sheep dairy has a lesser environmental impact and can be sustainably managed on smaller land areas. Reduced nitrogen leaching, improved soil matrix, and lower feed consumption are some ways sheep dairy is a more eco-friendly choice. The production of triple the amount of sheep milk solids for the same carbon footprint as cow milk highlights the potential benefits of sheep dairy.

    Jones Family Farm, like other sheep milk producers, recognises the importance of environmental sustainability and providing nutritious, eco-friendly dairy products. 

    As part of Sheep Milk New Zealand, we’re actively involved in research to understand the impacts of sheep milk on the environment and develop optimal farming practices. By focusing on areas such as nitrogen leaching mitigation and decreasing greenhouse gas emissions, we’re striving to improve our sustainability.

    Sheep milk presents a compelling alternative to traditional dairy farming. With ongoing research and the commitment of farmers, the sheep dairy industry has the potential to provide sustainable dairy solutions and contribute significantly to our economy while meeting the growing demand for nutritious, eco-friendly options.

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