No sheep’s milk cheese without lamb

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Production Ecology

Every year, tens of thousands of lambs are born so that their mothers can produce milk for sheep and goat cheese. What happens to these lambs? We spoke to two farming families who supply us with lamb’s meat. Wolves also come up in made their way into the conversation.

Engadin sheep on the winter pasture of Schär organic farm in Brittnau, Canton Aargau.

Engadin sheep on the winter pasture of Schär organic farm in Brittnau, Canton Aargau.

What’s true for cows also applies to sheep and goats. They all only produce milk when they have offspring. Compared to cows, there are relatively few dairy sheep and goats in Switzerland. But unlike cows, they often give birth to two lambs before they can be milked.

Number of dairy sheep in Switzerland

Number of dairy sheep in Switzerland - 20-year comparison (Source: BFS, Agricultural Structural Survey) - dairy sheep - organic sheep - conventional sheep - organic share. In 2020, there were 14,500 dairy sheep in Switzerland. For comparison: around 680,000 cows were milked in the same year.

The way this offspring is treated fundamentally varies depending on the producer – even though three quarters of dairy sheep in Switzerland are kept according to organic standards. In the traditional system that established itself over the last 20 years, once the lamb is born, it is quickly handed over to a specialised farmer. “These are generally very good, professionally run enterprises,” says Bruno Zähner, who has around 250 dairy sheep together with his partner Sabrina Otto at Guggenbüel farm, run according to Demeter standards. “But these farmers face a problem that comes with the lambs.”

Zähner is referring to the fact that lambs from many different farms are brought together in the fattening farms. Each farm has its own bacteria. This means there is a tremendous mix of bacteria in the fattening farms – and precisely during a highly sensitive phase in the life of a lamb. The animal’s immune system is still developing. Losses and diseases are therefore inevitable.

Raising mother animals presents producers with a dilemma

Bruno Zähner and Sabrina Otto were still in this system just three years ago. “For us, it suddenly became clear that this would not work out,” notes Zähner. The couple decided to raise and market the lambs themselves in the future. “At the beginning, we took the lambs away from the mothers as is standard practice, so that we could milk the mother sheep as usual.”

Why are the lambs separated from the mothers? “When you look at a graph showing milk output, i.e. when the sheep produce the most milk, this is in the first five weeks after giving birth,” explains Zähner. “To benefit from the peak in milk output, you take away the lambs and milk the sheep.”

After the first year of having lambs on their farm, the couple changed their strategy. The lambs now remain with their mothers and Zähner and Otto only take the milk that the lambs don’t need. “We see the lambs are healthier,” Zähner says. However, the farm only produces half as much milk as it could do.

Although the producer prices for sheep’s milk are still in a comfortable range – up to 3.20 francs per kilogram depending on the buyer and season – Zähner notes: “But every month, we notice that half of our production is simply missing. On the other side, we have healthier lambs and we hope to be able to close this gap with the lamb through our marketing channels.”

A lack of economic alternatives to slaughtering

After spending any amount of time with the young animals, the question arises: do the lambs really have to be slaughtered? Could they not be kept and perhaps used for sheep’s wool?

“Yes, that would be possible,” Zähner explains. “For every kilogram of organic sheep’s wool that I produce and sell, I get 1.50 francs. A sheep produces around 3-4 kilograms of wool per year. So, my yield would be around 5 francs.” With this money, we would just be able to pay for the sheep shearer, who charges exactly 5 francs per animal. Nothing would be left over to cover costs, let alone generate an income.

This is also confirmed by Matthias Schär, who keeps 90 Engadin sheep on his organic farm in Brittnau for meat production. “Wool is generally not profitable. I can’t even pay the sheep shearer with the wool produced,” he comments. Apart from the meat of his animals, Schär says he only sells complete pelts once they have reached a nice length and are not matted.

Bruno Zähner and Sabrina Otto are already reaching their limits. “Our barn is actually too small. Almost every animal gives birth to two lambs. Our decision now means there are 400 extra animals on the farm.” The couple’s solution: as soon as the lambs are no longer dependent on the protection of the barn, they join the herd which the couple has a shepherd move through the region every winter and up to the alpine pasture in the Pizol area in summer.

Before the herd moves up to the alpine pasture in May, the mother sheep are “dried off” – as the lingo goes. In other words, you stop milking them. The animals then have all summer to recuperate. The older sheep lamb again in the autumn, the younger ones in February or March. This allows Zähner and Otto to produce milk from September to May, as well as sell lamb several times a year.

There’s danger in the mountains

Driving the animals up to the alpine pasture is difficult; they have to be brought there by animal transporter. There’s also another danger. Zähner and Otto’s alpine pasture is located right in an area with a wolf population. This also makes everything more expensive.

In the summer of 2021, the couple lost two animals to wolves on the Alp. Only two animals, because they hired ten livestock guard dogs and three shepherds – at a substantial cost. While measures to protect a herd are subsidised by the Swiss government, the funding doesn’t cover all the costs. “They give us just enough to keep quiet,” Zähner comments.

For example, the state pays 8 francs per day to train a shepherd dog. That money doesn’t go very far. Sometimes he gets frustrated about it, Zähner says. “The people who come up with these skimpy laws wouldn’t do anything at all for 8 francs. They wouldn’t bother going to the office in the morning for 8 francs.” Nonetheless, the continuous shepherding on the Alp is covered by direct payments. “The money is enough for us to pay the wages for the three shepherds,” says Sabrina Otto.

After all that, the couple only has a modest profit on the Alp. “We have to add everything up together,” Zähner adds. With the alpine pasture, they are able to keep 30 percent more animals and thus produce more milk and meat. “But when you just look at the individual products, it quickly no longer works out.”

In terms of the wolves, however, Zähner has a positive attitude. “For us, it’s absolutely clear that large predators are here and also belong here,” he notes. In most cases, that is also a good thing. “When you talk to the forester, you hear that there’s an urgent need for a predator to control the deer. But we have to lay down ground rules that they have to follow. If a wolf breaks the rules, you have to be pragmatic and be able to remove it.”

Matthias Schär believes the situation has already reached this point. “At the beginning, I always held the opinion that you should let wolves be wolves. It’s not a big problem if the herd is well protected,” he says. “But it has meanwhile reached a level that requires active regulation.”

Animals die on the Alp not only because of wolves

Zähner believes the debate on wolves is too one-sided. “The farmers count how many animals they have lost to wolves. That’s 800, 900 or 1,000 animals throughout Switzerland. But what the whole debate misses is the natural mortality of sheep,” Zähner explains.

If he has 1,300 sheep on an Alp in summer, 10-15 animals would die, says the Demeter farmer. Because they have a heart attack, because they fall, or because a rock hits them from above. “The loss generated by wolves goes beyond this natural mortality and that is frustrating, of course. This is all the more the case if you are reproached for it externally. As a farmer, this can really work me up,” Zähner admits.

But Zähner also doesn’t see the solution in herd protection alone and the responsibility lying solely with the producers. “If I have a wolf that systematically begins to get around our herd protection measures – and that will happen because they are very intelligent creatures – then I have to ask myself whether we want to give up livestock farming or provide a degree of control in the wolf population to enable coexistence. This is the question policymakers have to answer.”

Bruno Zähner and Sabrina Otto as well as Matthias Schär believe in what they do. That it is their task and their job to provide people with healthy food and ensure the animals are doing well. That is why they get up every morning, work 55 hours a week and even typically pay themselves much too little to ultimately make ends meet in the business.

You can find the lamb from Schär organic farm and Guggenbüel Demeter farm in our online shop.

Find out more about meat and gebana’s position on the topic here.

Sources used

Bio-Schafmilch: Einsicht in Aussichten, UFA-Revue (accessed on 28 February 2022)

Statistiken zu Land- und Forstwirtschaft, BFS (accessed on 28 February 2022)

Agrarbericht, (accessed on 28 February 2002)

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