Growing demand for sheep milk prompts startup Ovino to open in Acton

Sheep milk and low-lactose alternative product availability has grown in the cheese and milk market, prompting a new, large family-run startup sheep farm to begin operations in Acton.

700 ewes milked on rotating platform at the core of family-run sheep dairy

Sheep at Ovino farm, Acton, Ont. await return to their bedding area after milking. (Andrew Coppolino/CBC)

Ovino is hoping that the demand for sheep-milk products continues to increase, and with their state-of-the-art facility near Acton, Ontario, able to accommodate 2,000 sheep, they're ready to meet that demand.

"We've found a niche for sheep milk that wasn't being served. A lot of people are lactose-intolerant, and we want to bring them lactose-friendly milk," said Jay Akras, Ovino business development manager.

Lactose intolerance is a condition that can affect some individuals — approximately seven million Canadians, according to the Canadian Digestive Health Foundation — who have a deficiency in the enzyme lactase resulting in digestive discomfort when consuming milk products.

With 700 ewes, Lacaune and East Friesian breeds, in the bright, open building, Ovino, a family business, produces milk in three fat-percentages and a Balkan-style yogurt, with plans for feta cheese and flavoured yogurt production in the works.

Anticipating their current production will grow in the future, and with feeding and bedding equipment that runs on an overhead automated "monorail" reducing costly labour, Ovino's goal is to introduce more consumers to sheep's milk.

The Ovino farm's open interior sheep barn near Acton, Ont. (Andrew Coppolino/CBC)

"We're working with different retailers right now and hope to announce them in the next one to two weeks. We're open for on-farm sales Saturdays and Sundays 9 a.m. to 12 p.m.," Akras said.

He adds that a grand opening, with tastings and tours, is being planned for later this year when COVID-19 restrictions are lifted.

Sheep milk

The sheep live in a large, open free-run bedded-pack barn that was built starting in October 2018. They eat a mix of hay, grass and other greens and are milked twice a day on what Akras describes as the largest computerized rotary milking machine in the country, capable of milking 80 ewes at a time. The milk then travels to the next room where it is processed.

The rotary milking machine at Ovino farms, Acton, Ont. can accommodate up to 80 ewes at a time. Once the milking has ended, the receptacles disconnect automatically and sheep can descend from their stall on the wheel. (Andrew Coppolino/CBC)

A rich, creamy and sweetish milk, sheep's milk is known as an A2 variety, which is more easily digestible for people with a lactose intolerance.

Depending on the type of testing done, the global prevalence-estimate of lactose malabsorption is 68 per cent, according to The Lancet.

There is growing demand for a range of dairy alternatives across the food and beverage sector. With ovines, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada reporting that 72 new dairy products containing sheep milk launched in the country between January 2016 and December 2020.

A2 and alternatives

The cows at Eby Manor Golden Guernsey in Waterloo, Ontario, also produce A2 milk, according to farmer Jim Eby.

Jim Eby of Eby farms in Waterloo, Ont. produces A2 milk from Golden Guernsey cattle that more people find easier to digest. (Andrew Coppolino/CBC)

"Golden Guernsey milk is A2 which is non-reactive to people sensitive to casein, but there's a flavour element to the milk that is unique too," Eby said.

Adam van Bergeijk at Mountainoak Cheese in New Hamburg says that testing of his cow's-milk cheeses reveals them to have very little to no lactose.

"It's because of our recipe for cheesemaking," van Bergeijk said of his Dutch-style Gouda cheeses.

From New Hamburg, Ont., Mountainoak dairy's Dutch-style Gouda cheeses contain little or no lactose, the cheesemaker says. The cheese is stored in racks before retailing. (Andrew Coppolino/CBC)

Udderly Ridiculous, in Bright, Ontario, makes award-winning goat-milk ice cream that suits people with lactose intolerance and has filled a niche for a new dairy product.

"People were ready for it," said Cheryl Haskett of Udderly Ridiculous on The Food Professor podcast

In Cambridge, Yoso makes a wide range of casein-free, nut-free, gluten-free and vegan products with oats, soy, coconuts, almonds and cashews.

As well, more and more restaurants, from independents like Café Pyrus in Kitchener and the Copper Branch chain, are offering dairy-free cheeses and other non-dairy menu items.

Cyclical market

In Fergus, the Bzikot family owns Best Baa Dairy, making cheeses, milk for drinking and yogurt with sheep's milk from area farms. Peter Bzikot says the market for their product is evolving.

"The Ontario market has grown. Our sales have been good, probably up five per cent, so not bad growth," he said.

The Ovino sheep dairy farm near Acton, Ont. has opened with 700 ewes but could expand to 2000, says the family-run business. (Andrew Coppolono/CBC)

Describing sheep's milk as "nutrient-dense," he added that there was an earlier spate of pandemic "panic buying" and increased purchases of sheep's milk by at-home cheesemakers, and suggested, only half-jokingly, that perhaps the trend was driven by Tik Tok.

Yet, Bzikot describes the market for sheep's milk as cyclical. "Agriculture is tough if you're not in supply management," he said. "There's over- and under-supply."

Citing a relatively small market for sheep's milk in Canada currently, a "struggle" that non-bovine products have had with mainstream players, Professor Sylvain Charlebois, director of the Agri-Food Analytics Lab at Dalhousie University, says that amid non-dairy alternatives such as soy and almond milks, sheep-milk products could soon grow.

"With the arrival of non-dairy, it will be easier for grocers to manage these non-bovine products," Charlebois said in an email. "For years, it was confusing, and they didn't know where to put them. Now, the category is maturing into a more democratic one, which is nice."

The people may well indeed speak: the numbers, along with grocery-store shelving, more supply and better marketing could benefit a producer like Ovino when they get their Acton facility running at 100 per cent and ramping up production, according to Akras.

"We will be able to make lactose-friendly milk and milk products that are more affordable and that don't exist right now," he said. "The full potential of the market hasn't been developed yet."