By Susan Mongold – What struck me right away when my first Icelandic sheep lambed were the similarities that these sheep had with dairy goats. I had a commercial goat dairy in years past and these ewe lamb mothers had udders that would be respectable for a good milking dairy goat. The udder structure was similar with a good medial suspensory ligament, good teat placement and good hand milking size. It was obvious that these sheep were milked for centuries in Iceland.
In fact, Icelandic sheep were used as the main dairy animal in Iceland and known as the poor man’s cow for 1,000 years. Not until the 1940’s did this change with the advent of mechanized haying in Iceland, which allowed enough hay to be harvested to use cows as the primary dairy animal. Up until that point in time all haying was done by hand. The haying season was very short ad frequent rain was always a problem – only rich farmers could afford to put up enough hay with hired labor to keep a cow, so the Icelandic sheep was the main dairy animal for most farms. These dairy sheep were expected to winter over on the equivalent of two square hay bales, the fat on their backs and winter grazing when conditions were suitable.
Lambing took place in May and June and was timed for warmer weather and the emergence of grass. Sometimes a ewe was milked out before she lambed and this watery fluid was used to make glue that was used in bookbinding, woodworking and made into glazes and ink. The first milk, or colostrum, was usually left for the lambs. If an excellent milker had more than her lamb needed, the colostrum was made into custard.
The shepherds started weaning the lambs at two weeks of age by corralling the ewes in the evening about 6:00 p.m. The lambs were separated from the ewes and put in a separate shelter for the night and the ewes were again let out in the care of the shepherd to graze all night. In the morning at 6:00 a.m. the ewes were corralled and milked out. After Milking, the lambs and ewes were reunited to spend the day together.
This process went on for four to six weeks until the lambs were mature enough to be fully weaned. At this time the male lambs were castrated and driven up into the mountains or to inland common pastures along with the horses and other non-milking stock. The cows and ewes that were being milked were kept behind. The ewes were then milked two to three times a day and most gave a liter—good milkers gave two or even three liters. The milk was used to make butter, cheese or “skyr,” which is a semi-soft cheese similar to thick yogurt mixed with cream cheese. The last milkings before the ewe was dried up was boiled down into a thick substance.
In some districts, the farmers would establish shelters at the upper reaches of valleys or on the edge of moors, which in essence were summer dairies. The usual set-up included three buildings: a dwelling, a milk house and a summer kitchen. The shepherd, a milkmaid and a teenage girl who would help with the milking, cheese and butter making, occupied these shelters. These summer dairies were located near summer pastures and eliminated the need for long trekking to tend the stock. This also kept the stock away from the home pastures, which were used exclusively for hay production.
Icelandic Sheep: Milk, Meat and Wool
Today there is growing interest in raising sheep for profit by establishing small farmer owned sheep dairies. The lucrative sheep cheese market in the U.S. has fueled interest in these specialty farm enterprises. Sheep milk is high in fat and dissolved solids needed to make excellent, high-yielding cheese from relatively small amounts of milk. Sheep milk is also being made into very profitable yogurt, which is velvety smooth, creamy and naturally sweet—it needs no sweetener or fruit to make it palatable. It is a desert quality dairy product. Income from a flock can increase 75% by milking.
The problem is to find excellent milking stock that is both hardy and has an excellent yield of milk for 180 days. Until now, the leading milking sheep breed was the East Friesian, which has been selected for high milk production. Unfortunately, the breed is not hardy, the lambs are frail and have a low survival rate. The East Friesians also need high inputs of grain in order to produce high milk yields. Since grain is the biggest cost in livestock production, animals that need grain show lower profits. Iceandic sheep on the other hand are a hardy grass-based breed that produces high yields of milk on grass alone, and animals that can thrive on forage alone bring higher profits. Icelandic sheep are reliable twinners and have vigorous lambs that thrive. In addition their fleeces bring $5 to $15 per pound as specialty wool for fiber artists; compare this to the 50 cents a pound that the wool of most dairy breeds brings. (One sheep dairy uses the wool from their Shropshires as mulch.) Icelandic lamb meat is known worldwide as the best lamb for flavor, texture and tenderness, again bringing top dollar.
Shropshire is another breed that is being used for dairy purposes. One breeder told me that Shropshires are hard lambers and need assistance as a general rule. Icelandics on the other hand are easy lambers if they are not too fat at lambing. We pasture lamb and it is rare to have an assisted birth. The lambs are extremely vigorous and jump right up and go for the udder in minutes, unlike many breeds that need assistance for the lambs to nurse. Most folks are really impressed by the lamb vigor which is also seen in Icelandic crossbreds. For this reason, dairy sheep folks are taking a serious look at the first Icelandic sheep dairy in the U.S., True North Farm. Now in their second year, they will be in full production with a very young flock. If you want sheep that milk for home use, a home business or to raise market lambs, try Icelandic.
Here on the Tongue River Farm our lambs gain at the rate of ¾ to one pound a day on mother’s milk and grass/clover alone—no grain is fed to the ewe or lambs. Growth this fast is the product of an excellent, copious milk supply. With the infusion of the best and fastest growth/milk genetics from Iceland via semen, Icelandic sheep offer a diverse genetic pool from which to select for the best dairy animals.
This breed is milky and udders that dairy folks appreciate. The sheep dairy industry is looking for genetics to improve the udder shape, teat placement and capacity of their dairy breeds. Most commercial sheep breeds have udders shaped such that the bottom of the udder floor is below the teats making the complete emptying of the udder difficult without lifting the udder by hand to strip The treat placement on these breeds is on the side of the udder and thimble sized (which makes attaching the milking equipment difficult), and there is poor medial suspension. Medial suspension ligaments support the udder and keep it from dragging and becoming injured when full. Icelandics have udders similar to good dairy goats with strong medial suspension, excellent teat placement, and wonderful capacious elastic udders. This is just what the dairy sheep industry is looking for and indicated milkiness.
Icelandic ewes that don’t fit the dairy criteria still have a good market to shepherds/homesteaders/fiber artists who want to raise this breed for its fiber and meat. Sheep of other breeds have little value if they don’t milk well.
Icelandic sheep are extremely smart and bright. They learn the dairy routine easily and usually have good dairy manners. They are very companionable and easily become big pets if worked with a little bit.
Icelandic Sheep: Research From Iceland
The Icelandic ewes are noted for good milking ability and longevity. A very limited amount of information is available on the milk production of the Icelandic ewes during grazing, however. Limited studies covering a three year period have been done in non-grazing experiments with ewes fed on grass from a cultivated mire, fertilized with different rates of nitrogen and/or calcium. In the two-year study ewes that started with a production of 2,700 grams for production at 10 days into lactation, decreased production by 11 to 15 grams for each day of the lactation period, which was 1,500 at day 90. The difference in the quantity of milk produced in different years was great and has not been explained. The quantity difference is even greater than that found between ewes with singles and twins in earlier experiments when fed indoors on hay and concentrates for approximately two weeks after parturition
Limited studies are also available on the chemical composition of the milk of the grazing ewe in Iceland. The average chemical composition in very limited samples from the non-grazing experiments is:
A few samples have been collected from ewes grazing on dry mountain shrubland and on lowland mire. There are no apparent differences in the samples except for the fat, which was relatively high in the mountain sample at 8.5%.
It can be speculated using experimental results from other countries, that during early lactation, the milk production is relatively independent of the pasture condition, as the ewes can mobilize their body reserves for energy and protein This, of course, depends on the condition of the ewes at parturition. After four to six weeks of lactation, the ewes depend entirely on the available herbage for their milk production.
Icelandic Sheep: Perfect for Homestead Milk Production
Whether you are interested in raising sheep for a full-fledged sheep dairy business, some wholesome milk for your own homestead cheese making, or genetics that will produce lambs (crossbred or purebred) that will achieve fast growth on good forage, consider Icelandic sheep. Icelandic sheep can turn grass into copious amounts of milk, lamb meat and high-value, naturally colored wool.
Originally published in the May/June 2002 issue of Countryside & Small Stock Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.