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Wisconsin farm turns to Assaf sheep, genetics to make cheese

March 11, 2018

In a Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2018 photo, Mariana Marques de Almeida, left, and animal scientist and expert in genetics, and Jeff Wideman, lead cheesemaker at Maple Leaf Cheese in Monroe, Wis., hold the first lamb born for their Ms. J and Co. dairy sheep farm near Juda, Wis. Marques de Almeida, a native of Portugal, is a partner in the project along with Wideman and his longtime business partner, Shirley Knox. The sheep farm, which could some day have 1,500 sheep, is on the property on which Wideman was raised. (John Hart/Wisconsin State Journal via AP)

JUDA, Wis. (AP) — A Wisconsin cheese-making company is in the midst of a $2 million project to establish a flock of 1,500 sheep known for their high quality milk production.

Ms. J and Co. farm officials hope the Assaf sheep will be a gateway to higher profit margins, deeper flavors and more variety, the Wisconsin State Journal reported . The sheep are a synthetic breed created in Israel in the 1950s. The breed is known for its higher quality and higher milk production.

Jeff Wideman, lead cheesemaker at Maple Leaf Cheese, and his business partner Shirley Knox are working with Mariana Marques de Almeida, a senior animal scientist, agricultural engineer and an expert in Assaf sheep genetics. Almeida has spent nearly seven years working with Assaf sheep and making cheese.

Milking is still likely a few years away. The group is focusing on lambing and creating a genetically pure breed of the sheep through multiple rounds of breeding cycles. About 160 lambs were born this winter, with more scheduled to be born in March and April.

“This will be absolutely transformative,” said John Umhoefer, executive director of the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association. “Goat’s milk has been more on the radar for a lot of people, but sheep’s milk cheese has enormous potential.”

Wisconsin has nearly 1.3 million dairy cows across more than 9,000 farms, according to the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board. Only about 2,500 sheep on about a dozen farms in the state are being milked, according to Laurel Kieffer, a former dairy sheep farmer and who in 2016 help found the Sheep Dairy Association of Wisconsin.

Many consumers are unaware of sheep’s milk cheese, which can be more expensive than cow’s milk cheese, Kieffer said.

“A lot of people haven’t gone past cow cheddar and mozzarella,” Kieffer said. “There’s some culture that has to be worked through but there’s also just a lot of work to do if the industry is going to continue to grow. I’m hopeful and excited.”

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Information from: Wisconsin State Journal, http://www.madison.com/wsj

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