Monday, 4 April 2011
A Visit to WoolDrift Farm
This morning I got up early and drove out to WoolDrift Farm, home of Chris Buschbeck and Axel Meister. They raise East Friesian sheep for milk. I went early so I could see the sheep being milked.
Axel figures that they were the first in Ontario and maybe even in North America to commercially raise sheep for milk. That was a recently as 1994!
Mind you, in Europe where Axel got his training, sheep have been milked for centuries. In fact, worldwide, sheep's milk is far more common than cows' milk - 1.2 billion sheep are kept for milk and "only" about 226 million cows.
Sheep's milk has twice as much calcium as cows' milk, and is rich in zinc. Many people find it more digestible than cows' milk. You can only buy WoolDrift Farm's milk in the form of cheese or yogurt though because it is currently illegal under the Milk Act to sell fresh sheep's milk for human consumption. Axel is looking into the possibility of selling it frozen however, and he sells some milk for cosmetic purposes. It makes great soap.
The farm is a typical-looking one, with a big old barn. A few sheep and some horses were standing out in a fenced enclosure.
Before I entered the milking area, Axel asked me to cover my shoes with these lovely blue booties. As with any dairy operation, sanitation is the number one concern. In this case, the aim is to keep diseases out of the flock.
Before the sheep are brought up, Axel fills the trough in the milking stalls with mixed grains. Axel is milking 42 sheep right now, although 55 is about average. It's still early in the lambing season, and quite a few are still pregnant or have only very recently given birth.
Most of the sheep were hanging around inside the barn. These are mostly nursing ewes and their lambs, with a few ewes still pregnant. When a ewe shows signs of giving birth, she is given her own pen. Once the mother and babies (twins are common, and triplets are not rare) are well bonded, they get moved to a larger pen with other recent mothers and babies. Once that group is interacting well, they all go back to the hurly-burly of the herd.
His flock of 80 sheep produces 110 to 120 lambs per year. Some of these are sold as breeding stock, and some go for meat. I didn't ask, but I assume a couple are kept to replenish the herd. There was one old ewe who could hardly stand up, she had such terrible arthritis. She is 13 years old, which is pretty darned old in the sheep world. Don't think I've ever seen such an old sheep before!
Once Axel opened the gate to the milking parlour, the sheep stampeded their way into a holding pen, from which they went into the milking stalls in batches of 12. An adult ewe weighs 140 to 180 pounds, and they shove like crazy. Axel has - and uses - a shepherds crook; very useful for snagging stragglers and re-directing traffic.
Their enthusiasm for the process was clearly mainly driven by their desire to get at the grain, although all but a few were highly tolerant of the milking process. It's a somewhat noisy process. Axel plays the radio ("It's what they're used to.") and the equipment itself runs with a constant clickity-clack.
Before the milking equipment is attached, Axel squirts out a few teaspoons of milk from each udder to test for quality. His two dogs (a miniature daschund and a great Dane/Australian shepherd cross) were happy to hang around and clean up the evidence.
The udders are wiped with alcohol-based wipes to clean them, then the milking machine is attached. Axel set up every second ewe, and by the time he got to the end of the line, it was just about time to go back and switch to the remaining ewes.
In general, the ewes produce 2 litres of milk a day, for about 200 days. Right now, not all the lactating ewes are being milked, and a lower overall quantity of milk is being taken, as many of them are still nursing their lambs. He's only getting about about 1/3 of the expected amount at the moment.
Most commercial milking operations remove the lambs at birth and raise them on formula. At WoolDrift, they are left to nurse naturally for 30 days or so. Axel figures that while he gets less milk this way, the lambs are healthier and he's not out as much as you might think, due to the cost of the formula. There's also the labour involved in making sure that all those lambs get fed properly. This way, he just has to keep an eye out for problems - there is always a ewe or two who rejects her lambs - and those few lambs can be hand fed.
This one isn't being milked! Axel got most of the lambs separated out from the ewes coming in to be milked, but this one was determined to stay with Mama and snuck through. At that point it was easiest to let it wait out the process, since it was in the last batch of ewes and the milking stalls weren't all needed.
This is the view from the other side of the milking stalls.
Once the milking is done, the fence is raised and they thunder off back into the barn, and make room for the next set of ewes waiting in the holding pen.
Once all the milking was done, Axel washed up and set the milking equipment up to be washed. It looks like it's just hanging there, but it's basically run through a "dishwasher". First it's flushed with water, then soap, then an acid solution, then finally, just before being used again, a mild bleach solution.
The milk is taken from the holding tank, put into plastic pails and weighed, and stored in the 10' x 20' freezer. Sheep's milk will store, frozen, for a year or more, but it must be kept very cold: -22°C. If a batch of cheese is to be made, Axel will take the milk directly to the cheese maker, but otherwise it is frozen until wanted.
And this is the freezer, full of pails of milk.
That's the manure pile back behind the fence - regular readers of this blog will know I take a keen interest in manure. It sits there for a year or so, then is taken and spread on the pastures.
Once the ewes are milked, Axel walks round the barn and feeds a ration of grain to the other animals, and there are lots of them! In addition to the sheep, there is an emu, a llama, 3 horses, 2 dogs, assorted cats and 20 rams.
"Isn't that a lot of rams?" I asked. Most places just seem to have a couple or so. However, Axel sells breeding stock, and he also keeps his flock genetically diverse. Rams start at about $1,ooo and go up to about $15,000 or more, at least in Europe where sheep dairies are well established.
They do like that grain!
The sheep get sheared twice a year, but as I've noted before, that's a money-losing proposition, with wool currently bringing in about .30 cents a pound, which doesn't even cover the cost of the shearing.
This picture gives no idea of how enormous this horse really was. It's a Clydesdale, and that apparently little sheep sharing the manger with him is actually a good-sized ram. I was amused to discover that the rams have a much deeper and hoarser "baaaa" than the ewes do.
The llama was back in the barn with the ewes. Llamas are often kept by shepherds, as they are very protective of the flock.
I asked Axel about coyotes, and he had a very interesting response. Apparently, there are quite a few coyotes around - the farm backs onto 500 acres of wild land - but he has had no problems with the coyotes thus far. He figures the local coyotes don't know that sheep are tasty, and since they are very territorial animals, they are keeping out other packs of coyotes which might know that sheep are tasty. He never disposes of dead sheep by leaving them out in the woods; that would risk the local coyotes discovering that sheep are tasty...
And finally, of course no barn is complete without a few cats!
I did not meet Chris; although the farm does make a profit, it isn't enough to support a family so she was at her off-farm work. Axel's dream of a 100-sheep farm being enough to live on may not be here, but the dairy sheep picture has surely changed a lot since he first started out with about 50 frozen embryos brought over from Europe. The Ontario dairy sheep industry is now producing about 1 1/2 million litres of milk every year. From zero to 1 1/2 million is a big change in less than 20 years! And there's no reason to think that there isn't a lot more room for the sheep dairy industry to grow.