By Alan Harman – A generations-long trek from the romantic sun-baked mountains of northern Greece to the New World has led to a pioneering American dairy sheep business that is creating a new frontier for cheese and yogurt makers.
Andy Karras, 39, can trace his ancestry back to nomadic Greek farmers who prided themselves on the quality of their Chios and East Friesian milk sheep and the iconic cheeses they produced.
Andy’s great-grandfather started the first Karras Farm in Greece in the late 1800s.
“At that time the main focus of raising sheep was to produce the highest quality line of East Friesian sheep in the world,” Andy says. “He was breeding only the very best genetically pure sheep for superior bloodline, milk production, wool, and meat.”
Three generations later this same focus on breeding the perfect East Friesian sheep bloodline made its way to the United States.
His parents moved to the U.S. in 1962, settling in South Carolina because that’s where other family members, aunts, and uncles, had preceded them.
“My family did not bring their sheep genetics with them from Greece,” Andy says. “Our original sheep genetics were bought in 1996.”
There were special problems when Andy founded his farm in the humid heat of the southeastern U.S.
“When we first got the sheep, we had some losses due to the humidity,” Andy says. “Since then, we have not had any losses or conditioning impact from the heat. The sheep now are well adapted.”
Coming from a family of nomadic shepherds, the interest in sheep has always been in Andy’s blood, but it never crossed his mind to go into mainstream meat and wool production in the U.S.
“My ancestors raised their family from sheep for many, many years, with the milk and meat,” he says. “They made clothing from the sheep’s wool to clothe the family, so these animals weren’t just meat sheep breeds. Those are our roots, and it’s what kept us focused on pursuing the dairy sheep industry.”
He started his 417-acre farm from scratch.
“I do believe that when Karras Farm got started in 1996, neighbors saw it as ‘Mission Impossible,’” Andy says. “The reasons being: (1) At the time dairy sheep farming in the U.S. was rare. (2) A lot of people knew little about sheep, even the fact that there are different types—dairy, meat, wool.
“Our family’s experience is in dairy sheep and we consume the milk products in our own home. We make yogurts, cheeses, and ice cream, all with sheep’s milk that is the healthiest you can consume, has no chemicals, and is made from old family recipes.
“Dairy sheep genetics are in demand in this country and it has been profitable for our family—and that’s why we stayed in the dairy sheep industry.”
Born in Charlotte, North Carolina, Andy’s first memories of dairy sheep farming are from when he first obtained embryos of East Friesian ewes and rams.
“I was very excited about having this type of breed here in the U.S. because this was the sheep breed my family had in their country of Greece,” he says. “I felt a sense of accomplishment and was very eager with the knowledge I’d learned from my father and grandfathers, to get started in raising this beautiful breed of dairy sheep.”
Andy says there are several hundred dairy sheep farmers in the U.S. and the number is increasing each year due to the popularity of sheep milk.
The prized Karras East Friesian dairy sheep first entered the U.S. in 1996 through Canada.
Mary and Rusty Jarvis of Groveland Farm Wisconsin partnered with Peter Welkerling, an investor from Canada, to import full-blood East Friesian embryos from Europe.
The embryos entered Canada in 1995 and were implanted in ewes and the first North American East Friesian sheep were born. The full-blood lambs were then imported into the U.S.
Andy purchased his original East Friesian stock directly from Groveland Farm and since then, using a selective breeding process has developed some of the highest quality East Friesian dairy sheep available in the U.S.
In the process, he has become a leader in dairy sheep genetics, focusing on physical characteristics, milk production, wool and overall animal health.
His purebred East Friesian ewes and rams can sell for up to $1,000 a head with an average price of about $800.
“Our genetics from Karras Farm are now in 38 different states known to us,” he says. “But I’m certain there is at least one sheep farmer in every state across North America with our sheep genetics.
“We have more than 200 clients on our mailing list who have purchased from us.”
When Karras Farm started, there was no dairy sheep farming in his region.
“We started with only our knowledge from our ancestry and practice of every-day dairy sheep farming, along with my education—I am a qualified vet in Greece and that is where I received my education.”
He obtained his degree from the Karpenisi Veterinary School in the region where his parents once lived.
“I feel the lack of knowledge on husbandry of the dairy sheep itself has affected the dairy sheep industry, causing the sector to slowly increase or sometimes decrease. Also, the importation of dairy sheep products such as cheeses and milk products is affecting the growth.”
There are two main groups of buyers for Andy’s sheep.
“We have a lot of customers at Karras Farm that purchase animals for homestead farms, using the dairy sheep for the milk, meat, and wool for private use by their family,” he says.
“We also have had a number of dairy companies purchasing large numbers of dairy sheep for the production of milk to make cheeses, yogurts, and ice cream.”
Karras Farm may have started out specializing in breeding the highest quality East Friesian dairy sheep in the world, but now Andy had taken the business even further, producing the first Israeli Awassi sheep in the U.S. as well as the Assaf, another Israeli breed created by crossing the Awassi with East Friesians.
Andy now has dairy sheep bloodlines originating from Australia, New Zealand, and Europe.
The process leading to his sheep giving birth to the first Awassi lambs in the U.S. took two years.
Andy spent a year in Australia searching for the best Awassi sheep dairy genetics, an odyssey that could be likened to hunting for a needle in a haystack in a country that focuses on meat genetics.
Australia was selected because its strict quarantine laws lessen the chances of foreign sheep disease being found in their sheep.
“We had to specifically find a dairy farmer that was producing dairy products,” Andy says. “Then we had to trace through the records of these particular Awassi to confirm their purity. Once we found our breeder of Awassi genetics, we had to follow all guidelines and protocols of each Department of Agriculture.”
The work paid off.
The first full-blood Awassi sheep were born in March 2012, and Andy now is in his second year with the breed. He is accepting orders for Awassis and expects the live sheep and semen will be available within two years.
“It was difficult waiting a whole year to announce the birth of Awassi sheep in the U.S,” he says. “Our Awassi USA dairy sheep program will be a welcome enhancement to the dairy sheep industry in the U.S.”
The Awassi is a fat-tail dairy sheep that is very hardy by nature, fully adapted to arid environments and widely considered the highest milk producing breed in the Middle East.
The sheep have beautiful wool coats and are known for being resistant to many diseases and parasites that can badly affect other breeds.
The first F1 Assaf was born Jan. 3, 2013 to a purebred East Friesian ewe. The sire is a full-blood Awassi ram born at Karras Farm in March 2012 via an imported embryo from Australia.
“We have noticed the F1 Assaf dairy sheep have rapid weight gain, durability, and high parasite resistance,” Andy says.
The first of his Assaf lambs—costing $2,500 apiece—went out to sheep farms across the country in May.
The USDA has set requirements for the importation of new genetics into the U.S. The country of origin of the embryos also has its own Dept. of Agriculture guidelines that have to be met.
University of Wisconsin-Madison sheep researcher Yves M. Berger (now retired) said in a report for the Spooner Agricultural Research Station that the East Friesian is considered to be the world’s best milk-producing dairy sheep.
He says it averages 2.25 lambs a litter with milk yield of 1,100 to 1,540 pounds. (500 kg to 700 kg) per lactation of 240 to 260 days, testing six to seven percent milk fat, the highest average dairy milk yield recorded for any breed of sheep.
The lactation of the average U.S. sheep breed is about 100 to 200 pounds per lactation.
“They are highly specialized animals and do poorly under extensive and large flock husbandry conditions,” Berger wrote. “An example of the dramatic effect the East Friesian milk sheep can have on breeds adapted to environments too severe for the purebred East Friesian is from the development of the composite Assaf breed in Israel from crossing East Friesian with the Awassi, a breed adapted to the arid Middle East. Lamb and milk production among yearling Assaf is double that of the Awassi.”
Karras Farm now has 63 Awassis, 92 F1 Assafs, and more than 300 East Friesians.
“We try to keep 10 to 15 rams of each breed depending on demand,” he says.
Until recently, Andy says, the U.S. dairy sheep industry was growing only slowly.
“I have seen in the past few years a rapid increase in the demand and interest, both from commercial operators and homesteaders,” he says. “I feel in the next five to 10 years, the sheep industry will double due to people realizing the sheep milk is very good for their health.”
He recommends a stocking rate of five dairy sheep to the acre, but says a knowledge of the sheep helps determine the size of flock, along with the farm help available, the size of the barn and the availability of a food supply.
Regular wool and meat producers could also run a dairy flock as the milk will increase a farm’s revenue, along with the wool and meat from the dairy sheep flock.
“We don’t recommend having sheep and goats in the same living quarters,” he says, “but combining sheep milk and goat milk does make a blend of excellent artisan cheese that is very popular in Europe.”
The dairy sheep have to be milked every 12 hours and they have to be shorn once a year. The animals are easily trained in the use of a milking stall.
“We like the sheep to be heavily grazed and at times we feed a 22% protein feed,” Andy says.
The Karras Farm sheep average seven to eight pounds of milk a day during the prime milking season and have an average 10-month lactation period. The average ewe produces milk for about eight years. After milk production levels drop, the sheep is still good for eating.
About six pounds of sheep milk is needed to make one pound of cheese. Sheep milk is fattier than that of cow or goat milk. There’s a higher proportion of fatty, curd-producing solids in the milk and not as much is required to make the same amount of cheese.
Another benefit of sheep milk is it is naturally homogenized, meaning the fat globules are smaller and don’t separate from the less-dense, water-based components in the milk.
An Oklahoma State University report says the Awassi evolved as a nomadic sheep breed through centuries of natural and selective breeding to become the highest milk producing breed in the Middle East. The breed is calm around people, easy to work with and easily milked. When machine-milked, they can be milked in four to six minutes.
Prices for dairy sheep milking stalls start at about $1,000.
“The stalls can range up to many thousands of dollars and I have seen stalls holding up to 100 sheep,” Andy says.
U.S. sheep milk production is increasing annually to meet a demand that constantly exceeds supply.
As a result, about 53 million pounds of expensive sheep-milk-based cheese is imported annually.
The U.S. sheep milk is being used to make sought-after yogurt and milk products by people who are being told by their doctors that it is better than cow milk for health benefits.
“People are really interested in the sheep milk cheeses,” Andy says.
Also, soap made from the sheep’s milk is becoming popular.
Karras farm is not in the dairy business itself but sells live sheep, semen and embryos.
It has become a destination for everybody from church and school groups to curious neighbors and farmers. Many of those farmers end up buying dairy sheep, seeing an advantage in an animal that produces a new income source in addition to wool and meat.
“We are constantly researching and studying for ways to produce the highest milk producing sheep that’s hardy, parasite resistant, and that can withstand varieties of climates,” Andy says.
“On record, our highest milk yield is 4,200 lbs. from one ewe during a 10 month lactation period,” he says.
Overseas, the main countries that specialize in sheep milk are Greece, Italy, Spain, France, Russia, and Libya, where the demand is high, especially from countries around the Mediterranean.
There are hundreds of dairy sheep throughout the world; most of them being in the countries of their origin, Andy says, indicating that he has plans to introduce new breeds in the future.
Karras Farms runs courses for first-time buyers.
“We help clients get started on their farm by getting them set up for their dairy sheep before the sheep make it to their new home,” he says. “We also like to stay in contact with all of our customers to continue to help them with different things.
“We have a true passion,” Andy says.
“My dream is of operating a nationally renowned sheep farm in the U.S.”
Originally published in the July / August 2013 issue of sheep! and regularly vetted for accuracy.