By Yoseph Mekasha, Tesfaye Shewage, Dirk Hoekstra and Azage Tegegne
Sheep rearing is an important part of livestock production in Ethiopia and sheep milk could offer additional nutritional and income benefits for the country’s smallholder farmers.
Currently, sheep production in Ethiopia generates household income through the sale of live animals, provides meat (animal protein) for families, manure for fertilizing cropping land and meets socio-economic needs. Sheep and sheep products are also exported to provide much needed foreign exchange for the country.But, despite its socio-economic importance, the role of sheep as a source of milk is not well developed in the country.
On the other hand, some areas of the country are, however, now paying attention to sheep’s role in providing milk. In the Sidama highlands of southern Ethiopia, sheep not only provide meat but are also being used for milk production. According to farmers in the Gonjebe peasant association of Bensa District, sheep milk is being used by the elderly (when mixed with coffee) and by children. Additionally, women, who play a great role in rural milk processing, regularly add sheep milk to cow milk to improve butter content. Sheep milk contains higher fat (6.9%), protein (3.3%), lactose (5%) and minerals compared to cow and goats milk.
In Bensa, smallholder farmers supplement sheep with feeds such as Enset chorm and leaf and allowed their lactating animals to graze in the best pastures to ensure they produce more milk. These measures have improved milk yields for suckling lambs and for home consumption. Although sheep lambing occurs year-round, farmers prefer lambing to occur in April to September when feed is more readily available compared to other times in the year. The frequency of lambing in Bensa area is mostly once per year but may go up to three times per two years depending on how the animals are managed.
Feedback from the farmers, who were part of a focus group discussion, also showed that in the area, production averages 500ml of milk per day per ewe and milking is performed once a day in the morning. Moreover, a ewe can produce milk for up to 3 months after lambing. Using this information, if we assume that a given smallholder household has 3 lactating ewes, which produce 1 lamb each/year, we would have 3 lactation periods of 3 months each, totaling 9 months (270 days). Considering maximum yield of 0.5 litres/day, the household could produce up to 135 (270 x 0.5) litres of milk per year. Using the current sheep milk price offered in Daye town in Bensa (ETB 15 (USD 0.6)/litre), these 3 lactating ewes could generate up to ETB 2025 per year from the sale of milk alone.
However, unlike other commodities, sheep milk is not marketed in the area partly because of cultural reasons. Many in the community believe that consuming sheep milk is an indication of impoverishment. Thus, most smallholder sheep producers are reluctant to disclose that they milk sheep though they consume the milk at home.
The Livestock and Irrigation Value Chains for Ethiopian Smallholders (LIVES) project and partners are working to improve sheep productivity and household income through the introduction of improved production techniques. Improved lamb production through oestrus synchronization of ewes with hormones, early pregnancy diagnosis with preg-tone and rebreeding of ewes, improved fodder development and better health service are among the interventions introduced to increase lambing rate, improve milk production and reduce lamb mortality. But further studies can shed light on the potential and socioeconomic importance of sheep milk in the Sidama highlands.