Take heart, dairy goat and dairy sheep cheesemakers: it’s official, you have arrived. Out of a total of 314 cheeses taking home awards at the 2009 American Cheese Society, more than one-third – 133, to be exact, were goat, sheep, or blended milk cheeses.

And, of 133 of those goat, sheep or blended milk cheeses, 33 hailed from Wisconsin. Wowsers. What a difference a few years makes in America’s Dairyland.

Ten years ago, if you milked goats instead of cows in the state of Wisconsin, you were most likely to fall into one of two categories: 1) you were Amish, or 2) you were considered to be nuts by your neighbors.

Even Anne Topham, who’s been milking goats and making farmstead goat cheese for more than 25 years, says when she entered the industry, her dad told her it was sign she was at the end of her rope. “Only the people who were about to go broke started milking goats,” she says.

Well, no more. Let me be the first to officially declare that Wisconsin is entering the glory days of goat and sheep milk, and as a result, goat, sheep and mixed milk cheeses. Whoo-hoo!

Of course, this turn-around in our state’s dairy industry didn’t happen overnight, and it didn’t happen by accident. Three years ago, the State of Wisconsin identified the need for helping grow technical resources for our burgeoning dairy goat industry and hired a Grow Wisconsin Dairy Goat Initiative coordinator (goat guru Jeanne Meier). Today, the state has the most dairy goats (33,000) in the nation, is hosting its second Focus on Goats statewide conference next weekend, and recently had more than 100 people – the most ever – show up at a dairy goat farm field day.

And in exciting news, just last month, the Dairy Business Innovation Center (full disclosure – this is a non-profit for which I do communications consultant work) hired the first-ever Dairy Sheep Specialist in the state of Wisconsin. Her name is Claire Mikolayunas, and after first figuring out how to pronounce her last name (say: Mc-o-lay-you-nis), I learned Claire is considered to be one of the premier sheep specialists in the nation.

Just as Jeanne Meier has partnered with host of state organizations, cheesemakers and dairy farmers to help lead the dairy goat revolution in the state of Wisconsin – mark my words – Claire Mikolayunas will do the same for dairy sheep.

With an undergraduate degree from Cornell, a master’s in animal science, and an expected spring 2010 doctorate degree in animal sciences, both from the University of Wisconsin, there is no doubt Claire intellectually kicks most people’s butts (including mine). She currently serves as the President of the Dairy Sheep Association of North America and on October 9, was selected as an American Dairy Science Association Midwestern Branch Young Scholar for 2010 based on her research accomplishments on the nutrition of dairy ewes with emphasis on protein utilization.

And if you’re eyes haven’t yet glazed over with all those accolades, let me be the first person to tell you that Claire is really cool, down-to-earth and ready to help people. In fact, if I hadn’t dug up her resume and Googled her name, I’d know none of the above info. Because first and foremost, Claire is dedicated to growing Wisconsin’s sheep milk industry, and frankly, we can use all the help we can get in that department. It’s common knowledge in the state’s inner dairy circles that our cheesemakers could easily use double amount the sheep milk currently being produced in the state.

Let me be clear — it’s not as if our dairy sheep farmers are sloughing off. Actually the opposite: Wisconsin leads the nation in production of dairy sheep milk products. With only 13 licensed milking sheep herds, we produce nearly 1 million pounds of milk annually. Nearly 95 percent of that milk is used in the manufacturing of specialty cheeses in Wisconsin and most is purchased by five Wisconsin cheese plants:
  • Carr Valley Cheese, LaValle, Wis., producing a variety of blended milk cheeses and sheep’s milk cheese
  • Cedar Grove Cheese, Plain, Wis., manufactures both its own brand of cheese and contracts with the Wisconsin Sheep Dairy Cooperative to make Dante and Mona
  • Hidden Springs Creamery, Westby, Wis., this farmstead dairy sheep facility produces a variety of fresh and aged sheep’s milk cheeses
  • Roth Kase & Sartori Foods in Monroe and Plymouth, Wis., respectively, are both new to the sheep milk market, but are experimenting with sheep milk cheeses.
The Wisconsin Agricultural Stats Service recently sent surveys to all Wisconsin licensed dairy goat and sheep operations, to follow-up with surveys done in 2006, when both industries were just starting their ascent to validity. Those results — due to be announced at the Focus on Goats conference in Wisconsin, Oct. 30-31, will help industry specialists such as Jeanne Meier and Claire Mikolayunas better plan for research projects, educational seminars, field days and other areas of interest to help more farmers enter the dairy sheep and goat industries, and to help current producers and processors maximize their operations.

So, let me be the very first to officially welcome Claire to our dairy sheep team, and I’m looking forward to more sheep milk and more sheep milk cheeses made in Wisconsin!

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