It may take a little time for the idea to catch on, but Lyle McNeal and a growing number of people think that soon they'll be counting money instead of just counting sheep.

While most Americans have the idea that the only milk fit for human consumption comes from cows, McNeal, a Utah State University animal scientist, has his students milking a dozen Western Whitefaced sheep. The milk is frozen and given to Don McMahon in USU's nutrition and food science department. He is involved in analyzing the milk's nutritional value. USU food scientists plan to eventually turn the milk into a variety of products such as cheese and candy.Although dairy sheep are uncommon in this country, the United States imports nearly $700 million worth of cheese containing sheep's milk - including Roquefort, Pecovino and some feta cheese - every year.

And while farmers get about 10 cents a pound for cow's milk, dairy processors in Minnesota pay 75 to 95 cents per pound for sheep's milk and will buy as much as they can get, McNeal said. That's good news in an industry where depressed prices for wool and lamb have left sheep farmers looking for ways to increase profits.

A number of Ephraim-area farmers are interested in the idea, and a Minnesota company has expressed a willingness to build a creamery there if 1,000 milking sheep can be brought into production, McNeal said.

With an estimated 3 million sheep in the Intermountain area, sheep milking could become big business.

The USU project has started small, with just 12 sheep, but that number will triple in a few weeks when 24 Navajo Churro sheep are added to the dairy flock.

The animals are milked twice daily in a converted cow milking room at the Utah Dairy Herd Improvement Association (DHIA) building at 1553 N. 800 East in Logan.

Each sheep is currently producing about 2 pounds of milk per day. McNeal hopes that using the same breeding techniques that increased milk production in cows will eventually do the same for dairy sheep. McNeal is a member of the National Dairy Sheep Association's Genetic Improvement Committee which is investigating using genetic material from European breeds which produce 8 to 10 pounds of milk per day.

While milking sheep is similar to milking cows, there is one difference that makes sheep milking attractive to farmers who don't want to be "married to milking" 365 days a year. Unlike cows, sheep can be milked for about 100 days, dried up and then milked again later.

McNeal envisions a variety of hard and soft cheeses and fudge made from Utah sheep's milk that could be marketed to tourists, gourmet shops and restaurants. The Utah Department of Agriculture has also indicated an interest in marketing the products.