Cow, Sheep, Goat: What’s in a Milk?

Milk is milk, is milk, right?

Well, no.

All milk serves the same basic purpose of nourishing a mammal’s young, but how that milk accomplishes its goal is different for each animal.

Cheeses made from cow’s milk are perhaps the most prevalent in the United States, but goat’s milk cheeses and sheep’s milk cheeses are just as important and provide as many possibilities.

The differences among the milks come from their respective animals, naturally.

Surprise! Cows produce the largest quantities of milk. Weighing in at around 1,600 pounds as adults, cows are the biggest ruminant animals—the category of mammals that includes cows, sheep, and goats: grazing mammals with four-compartment stomachs who chew cuds.

For perspective, a grown-up ewe might weigh anywhere from 99 to 220 pounds, and an adult lady goat could weigh somewhere between 44 and 310 pounds. So it comes as no surprise that the big bovines squirt out more gallons of milk than the little sheepies and goaties, thanks to their sheer size differences.

A given cow might produce 50 pounds of milk each day, and can give milk for up to 300 days out of a year.

That’s a lot of milk, but when you consider that it sometimes takes about 10 pounds of milk to produce one pound of curds and whey, that milk doesn’t seem to be going as far. Most farmstead creameries will have more than one cow on hand; a herd of 50 cows can produce around 750,000 pounds of milk in a year—which seems like a better amount of milk to use for producing cheese for sale.

Jersey Cows

Yet not every breed of cow has the same milk. Holstein cows produce more milk on average and that milk has a fairly decent fat content, whereas Jersey cows produce less milk but that milk contains larger and more abundant fat.

More and bigger fat translates into more cream, thus richer cheeses. And that’s why a basket ricotta made with Jersey cow milk is going to be much more supple and velvety than ricotta made from Holstein milk.

(I would also like to clarify that Jersey cows were originally from Jersey, England, not New Jersey; certain baby cheesemongers I know thought these cows come from “Joysey.” While there may be some Jersey cows living in New Jersey, their breed originated on the other side of the Atlantic.)

Not shockingly, goats and sheep produce much less milk on average than their moo-ch bigger cousins. For example, goats can give milk for 260 days out of a year, and they produce about 10 pounds of milk a day. Sheep can be milked for only 180 days each year, and they give a mere 5 pounds of milk per day.

If cows’ milk has a 4-percent fat content on average, goats’ milk is leaner, with 3.5-percent fat content. Sheep have the richest milk, with a 6-percent fat content.

In a year, that translates into a single cow producing about 1,500 pounds of cheese, a goat producing 260 pounds of cheese, and a sheep producing 180 pounds of cheese. Of course, these are all averages, and they depend on the type of cheese, breed of animal, and other minutiae of cheese production.

East-Friesian Sheep
Nubian Goats

The most common breeds of goats used for cheesemaking are Toggenburg, Nubian, and Saanen goats; Saanens produce the most milk, and Nubians produce the least. Among sheep, there are Friesians, Dorsets, and Lacaunes; Friesians and Dorsets produce the most milk, whereas Lacaunes—which traditionally provide the milk for Roquefort—produce the least.

The choice of which breed to use depends not only on whether or not you are making a cheese that requires specific milk—like real Cantal requiring Salers cows or Roquefort historically being made from Lacaune milk—but also on the place where the animals are being kept.

There’s a reason why different regions in Europe tend to have traditionally focused on the milks of different mammals: some cows do better in marshy areas or Alpine climes, many goats flourish in drier or warmer climates, and sheep tend to do better in lowlands and valleys—all depending on breed, of course.

That’s why many cheeses from southern Spain are goat’s milk cheeses—and also because the Arabs left behind their goats and traditions of making goat’s milk cheeses when they fled Spain in the Middle Ages—as well as in southern France, Italy, Greece, Turkey, and all along the Mediterranean. It also explains why there are more cow’s milk cheeses from Switzerland, Austria, and northern France.

The first cheeses were likely also made with goat’s milk, and it wasn’t until a bit later that our ancestors started coagulating and aging the milk from their sheep and cows. Thank goodness for their experimentation (and also the necessity to find more stable ways to keep milk year-round).

Among the many differences in milks, the fat and protein levels mean more than just how many pounds of milk there will be in a year or how rich the resulting cheese will be.

You may know that people who can’t digest cow’s milk or who are lactose intolerant can often eat sheep or goat’s milk products instead. That’s because the lactose levels are different in each type of milk.

BUT it is worth noting that the longer a cheese is aged, regardless of what kind of milk it is made from, the less lactose there is remaining in the cheese. The proteins break down during aging such that any cow’s milk cheese aged more than 18 months can essentially be considered lactose-free.

So if you take aging, terroir, type of cheese, type of animal, and breed into account, along with all of the other elements to cheesemaking that lead to each individual cheese’s uniqueness (including added ingredients like herbs, salt, ash, flavorings, etc.), the ability to try cheeses from different mammals opens up a wide range of possibilities.

It’s kind of a neat experiment to do a side-by-side taste comparison of three different cheddars or goudas or soft-ripened cheeses, each made with a different type of milk, and think about how they are similar and different.

I encourage you to try something new next time you’re browsing your local cheese shop. If you’ve been focused on consuming cow’s milk cheeses, the meaty, gaminess of many sheep’s milk cheeses will surprise you, and the tartness of a fresh goat’s cheese may come as a welcome change.

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