Grad student Claire Mikolayunas will lead Wisconsin’s new Dairy Sheep Initiative

Claire Mikolayunas, who will receive a doctorate in animal sciences from UW-Madison in 2010, has joined Wisconsin’s Dairy Business Innovation Center to lead the new Wisconsin Dairy Sheep Initiative. The initiative has been established to provide support for emerging sheep milk producers and sheep milk cheese producers.

“Wisconsin leads the nation in the number of dairy sheep farms and the production of sheep milk products, but demand still exceeds supply,” says Mikolayunas. “More Wisconsin cheese makers are producing artisan sheep milk and blended milk cheeses, and gaining national recognition for their quality. We want to keep this industry growing, and growing in a way that is profitable for both producer and processor.”

The Dairy Sheep Initiative a partnership with the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, will help provide technical and business planning support to new producers and connect producers with viable markets. Regional educational meetings, seminars and producer resources are also being planned.

Mikolayunas also serves as President of the Dairy Sheep Association of North America. Last week, she 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.

The U.S. dairy sheep industry is fairly new. Prior to the early 1980s, there were no commercial sheep dairies in the country, but increasing demand by U.S. consumers for imported sheep milk cheeses led a few entrepreneurial producers to begin operations. Today, 13 licensed dairy sheep herds in Wisconsin produce nearly 1 million pounds of sheep milk annually, while seven licensed cheese plants craft specialty sheep milk cheeses. At the 2009 American Cheese Society Annual Competition, Wisconsin cheese makers earned nearly half of all awards given to cheeses made with sheep milk.

“Wisconsin has the opportunity to become not only a national leader in sheep milk and sheep cheese production, but to set a national standard for the quality of these products,” said Jeanne Carpenter, DBIC Communications Director. “The DBIC is honored to have Claire Mikolayunas join our team. The depth and breadth of her knowledge will lead Wisconsin producers to a new level.”