Sheep Milking: Highlights of the Industry’s Past, Present, and Its Promising Future

Featured image for a blog article on the past, present, and future of the sheep milking industry

The tradition of sheep milking has deep roots in parts of Europe, the Mediterranean, and the Middle East, with a history spanning thousands of years – long before cows were ever milked. However, the idea of drinking sheep milk is relatively new to New Zealanders.

In this article, we delve into the multifaceted parts of the sheep milking industry, touching on its historical context, the current dynamics, and the promising future that lies ahead for our country.

The Diversity of Milking Sheep Breeds

While the lactating ewes of any breed can be milked, the specialised breeds stand out for their significantly higher yield. Among these, the East Friesian emerges as the most prevalent milking sheep globally and in New Zealand.

Other breeds used for milking include Assaf, Lacaune, Manech tête Rousse, Poll Dorset, Zwartbles, Border Leicester, and Coopworth, among others.

Jones Family Farm milks a special breed of sheep specifically bred to suit the South Island’s climate. You can learn more about our Strathclyde flock on Sheep Milk NZ’s website.

Strathclyde milking sheep

Why Sheep Milk?

As consumers, our purchasing decisions are influenced by health, environmental, and lifestyle choices.

Sheep milk and sheep milk-based products are growing markets locally and internationally as more and more people seek healthier, easier-to-digest alternatives to “traditional” cow milk-based dairy products. Many are also becoming more conscious of the environmental impact of the products they purchase.

Environmental Impact and Sustainability

Farming sheep for milk emerges as an environmentally conscious choice, with the ability to be sustainably run on smaller land areas than bovine farming (<3.2 cows per hectare versus 12 sheep per hectare).

The lower impact extends to reduced nitrogen leaching losses due to smaller, less concentrated urine patches, a more favourable farm soil matrix due to less compaction, a shorter lactation period, and lower feed consumption.

As shoppers increasingly prioritise eco-friendly options, the sheep milk industry is poised to meet these demands.

Dairy Sheep vs Dairy Cows - An infographic comparing methane emissions between dairy cows and milking sheep.
An infographic comparing methane emissions between dairy cows and milking sheep.

Health Benefits

Because we cover the health benefits of sheep milk in greater detail in other articles, we will only briefly summarise them here.

Sheep milk, rich in A2 protein and naturally lacking A1 protein, is a gut-friendly alternative for those with sensitivities. Despite containing lactose, studies show that A2 milk may alleviate digestive discomfort experienced by those with lactose intolerance. Sheep milk also boasts more short-medium chain fatty acids, thought to aid lactose absorption.

It surpasses cow’s milk in protein, calcium, and essential nutrient content, supporting gut and heart health and potentially reducing cholesterol. It’s abundant in prebiotic, antibacterial, and immune-boosting properties, meaning sheep milk may help enhance our overall well-being.

A2 protein milk is easy to digest

Sheep Milk for Dairy Products

Sheep milk is suitable for producing many dairy products: cheese, yoghurt, gelato, cream, and more. As for milk production, New Zealand milking sheep boast an average of 130 liquid litres of milk and 57 kg of milk solids per ewe per year!

Milking sheep produce less liquid milk volume than cows but compensate for this with a higher milk solids content. The cheese yield ranges from 18-25%, surpassing cow milk’s 9-10% yield, meaning we can make more cheese from the same amount of milk.

The Global Sheep Milking Industry

The commercial sheep milking industry is concentrated in Europe (particularly Spain and France) and the Mediterranean, where historical practices have paved the way for a vigorous market. With over 100 million sheep raised for milking globally, the annual production of sheep milk hovers around 10 million tonnes.

The industry’s farmgate market value reached NZD 10 billion in 2021, with projections indicating a climb to NZD 13 billion by 2028. The global retail value of sheep milk products in 2021 was estimated at NZD 49 billion!

A table created by Jones Family Farm compiled from Data from FAOSTAT. Table showing the estimated worldwide production of sheep milk in tonnes.
Table showing the estimated worldwide production of sheep milk in tonnes. Table by Jones Family Farm. Data from FAOSTAT.

In 2021, 10.5 million tonnes of raw sheep milk was produced, making up 1% of global animal milk production. Even so, sheep milk is a growing market, with production increasing by almost 14% over the past two decades (see graph above).

While cheese has always been the predominant sheep milk product consumed globally, the desire for sheep milk-based yoghurt, UHT milk, infant formula, nutritional powders, etc., is growing. As mentioned, environmental and health concerns and a desire for more natural, sustainable food choices create a demand for better options.

New Zealand’s Emerging Sheep Milking Industry

Despite New Zealand’s long wool and sheep meat farming history, sheep milk is in its infancy. Currently concentrated in the central North Island, the industry comprises approximately 22,000 milking ewes, producing nearly 3 million litres annually.

Since 2013, export volumes from New Zealand’s sheep milking industry have increased by 40% and the export value by almost 80% to NZD 23 million.

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

New Zealand’s dairy exports generated nearly $26 billion for the year to April 23. That’s one-quarter of our country’s total export value!

Dairy cow numbers are declining due to sediment loss (reducing the amount of suitable land), unfavourable weather conditions, rising input costs, and other factors. Switching from bovine to ovine farming in areas no longer suited for dairy cows will complement one of our country’s strongest primary industries nicely.

Future Prospects and Economic Impact

Further expanding sheep milking operations in the South Island and developing high-value products can boost the sector’s economic contribution from $20 million in 2019 to an estimated $250 million in 2024/2025!

The sheep milk export industry in New Zealand is poised for remarkable growth, especially in infant formula and nutritional powders. Projections indicate a growing global infant formula market, with sheep infant formula capturing a promising 0.5% share. By securing a 50% market share, New Zealand could potentially meet 7,200 tons of this demand, necessitating an increase of 35,000 milking ewes within the next five years.

Within ten years, New Zealand’s dairy sheep industry expects to grow to 250,000 milking ewes, generating up to $1.5 billion for the economy.

Should New Zealand’s sheep dairy flock reach one million milking ewes – which is only 5% of our existing sheep numbers – implementing enhanced feeding and genetics practices would position the country among the top global producers.

Wide-Reaching Benefits of Milking Sheep in New Zealand

This achievement would benefit farmers and many other sectors, such as dairy support businesses, logistics, transportation providers, packaging companies, trades and services, and the broader New Zealand economy.

The potential economic value is vast, marking a transformative period for the emerging sheep milking industry in New Zealand. Further, the social and environmental benefits highlight the industry’s potential for success.

Concluding Thoughts

The rich history and promising future of the sheep milking industry in New Zealand offer a compelling narrative. This industry presents a sustainable and eco-friendly alternative to traditional dairy farming, and the science and growing global demand for sheep milk-based products back this up.

With health benefits, including gut-friendly properties and nutritional advantages, coupled with the potential economic impact, the sheep milk sector in New Zealand is on the brink of significant expansion.

As the country aims to increase its milking ewe numbers and capitalise on the global market, the sheep milking industry promises to transform not only the agricultural landscape but also contribute substantially to the economy.

The potential wide-reaching benefits extend beyond farmers to many sectors, emphasising the social, economic, and environmental advantages of embracing sheep milking.

The future of sheep milking in New Zealand is bright, making it an exciting time for anyone eager to explore the world of possibilities.

Ready To Try Sheep Milk for Yourself?

Order online now from Jones Family Farm, or find your nearest stockist.

buy sheep milk online in new zealand from jones family farm


  • AgResearch: 1
  • DairyNZ: 1; 2
  • Ministry for Primary Industries: 1; 2
  • New Zealand Food Innovation South Island (FoodSouth): 1

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