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Imported Genetics Spur Sheep Milk Production
In an age when dairy farmers are taking an extreme financial hit and avoiding expansion, business partners Shirley Knox, Mariana Marques de Almeida, and Jeff Wideman are doing exactly the opposite. The Monroe, Wis. trio are establishing the first U.S. Assaf sheep flock focused on milk production.
  The key to their $2 million dream is using imported genetics to grow a flock of 1,500 Assaf sheep that are known for outstanding milk production. The Assaf breed, which is extremely rare in the U.S., originated in Israel at the Volcani Research Center in the 1950ís. Animals were exported to Spain several times between 1977 and the 1990ís. Spanish breeders then implemented a genetic improvement program that the Wisconsin trio have tapped into by purchasing frozen Assaf semen. That initial purchase yielded several hundred baby lambs by spring 2018, with more births expected in the next 18 months. Knox says their goal is to establish a flock of milking ewes by 2019 on a former dairy farm near Juda, Wis. where Wideman grew up. In addition to purchasing the geneticsí the business also built new facilities to house the ewes, lambs and a 72-stall milking parlor.
  To raise their animals, Wideman and Knox teamed with Marques de Almeida, a Portugese animal scientist and specialist in Assaf sheep, who they knew from world cheese competitions. Together the group formed Ms. J and Co., which represents the initials of the three founders, in 2015.
  Thereís a big demand for sheep milk in Wisconsin and the group will be selling to milk cheese plants that are already producing sheep milk cheeses. Wideman says sheep milk cheeses have unique flavors that consumers really enjoy. John Umhoefer, executive director of the Wisconsin Cheese Makerís Association, agrees, and says that sheep milk cheese has enormous potential as a niche market not only in Wisconsin, but across the country.
  Although Wisconsin has only about 2,500 sheep being milked on a dozen farms in 2018, that number is bound to grow. Marques de Almeida has moved to Wisconsin and is using her sheep genetics expertise to not only build their herd, but provide training for other small ruminant dairy farmers who want to enter the industry. The Wisconsin Sheep Dairy Association, formed in 2016, received a $38,000 grant from the State to promote the sheep milk industry. Wideman says he foresees other Assaf farms being established in the Juda area so it can become the hub of sheep milk production for the state.
  Contact: FARM SHOW Followup, Ms. J and Co. (www.msjandco.com; mariana@msjandco.com).


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2018 - Volume #42, Issue #4