MOUNT GILEAD, Ohio —Some dairy farmers say no two milking parlors are the same, and for one Morrow County farm, that is definitely true.
First, it’s in a building that looks like a greenhouse, but as you enter it, you see instead a milking parlor, complete with a milking station set up for six. Except it’s obvious a cow can’t be milked in the small setup.
Nope, this parlor is designed for sheep.
Welcome to Sippel Family Farm, the first sheep dairy in Ohio.
Veggies came first
Ben and Lisa Sippel started a produce farm, selling by direct market and through their Community Supported Agriculture system, in 2000.
A CSA directly connects farmers and consumers. In most models, consumers can pay a monthly fee and the farmer provides them with a certain amount of product for that subscription.
The Sippels started the vegetable gardens on land that had previously been pasture land for more than 40 years. Lisa said they owe their vegetable business to the organic matter left behind in that plot of land. Today, they grow 40 kinds of lettuce, carrots, peas and other vegetables on their farm and in greenhouses on their property. In addition, the farm also features an orchard with 300 semi-dwarf apple trees.
They sell only what they produce and grow themselves. “If we don’t pick it, then we don’t offer it to our members,” Ben said.
They purchased their 77-acre farm in January 2004. Both were only 23 at the time and neither of them had been raised on a farm. Lisa was born and raised in Worthington, Ohio, and Ben was also from the Columbus area. Both had went to college in the area and Ben worked on a farm during that time and grew to love agriculture.
Why sheep cheese?
The couple knew they needed more than what they were producing in order to keep their CSA profitable year-round. Ben said they were going to the farmers markets regularly and, as long as the weather was decent or there were no events going on, they could sell all of the vegetables they were taking.
But if something went wrong, they would end up bringing produce home and composting it due to no sales. They realized their direct marketing and CSA plan could use some tweaking.
So the couple decided they needed a durable product that would keep no matter what. They needed something they could take with them to the farmer’s market and bring back with them without a loss if it didn’t sell.
Their answer: producing cheese.
Today, both Ben and Lisa work full-time on the farm. It took awhile to build the farm so that it could support the family entirely. Up until their son Charlie was born in 2007, Ben worked full-time running the farm and Lisa continued to teach.
But it is not a quick and easy process to start producing sheep cheese.
The Sippels realized their farm was not big enough to raise dairy cattle for the purpose of making cheese, and for various reasons, the Sippels felt goats were not for them. And then, they thought about what could be a good animal to have around their young son, Charlie. That’s when they decided sheep were the way to go.
Lisa went to work taking a cheesemaking course with her brother, Ben Baldwin, and her husband started researching everything they needed to know. Baldwin hopes to join the operation later this year.
Lisa practiced making cheese for a year and half before they mastered the process and they began production. There are two kinds of sheep cheese produced. One is called a Tomme and the other is a European Farmstead cheese.
She added that the farm is still experimenting on some different cheeses to make, however, they are making cheese and will have some for sale later this summer. They are also making two kinds of cow’s milk cheese with milk from local producers Ed and Marvin Ruhl.
The process from milk to cheese on the Sippel Farm takes between 60-90 days before it can go to the market.
An interesting fact about the sheep cheese is that it is generally all white but very high in fat, compared to cow cheese which is yellow when high in fat.
Lisa admitted the sale of the cheese is much easier for an operation like hers than it would be for a grain producer. She said the thought of direct marketing to customers can be very scary for some farmers, but in their operation, the cheese is just one more item added to the CSA or farmers market menu.
“If the tables were turned, though, and I had to depend on the commodity markets like grain farmers, then that would scare me,” she said.
Starting a flock
In the meantime, Ben and Lisa also had to look for sheep to start a flock. They visited Vermont and New York, and purchased two flocks. One is primarily the Friesian breed (from the same part of Europe as the Holstein Friesian cattle breed) and the other is the Lacaune breed. The Lacaune genetics are similar to the Jersey breed of cattle in that the Lacaune genetics increase fat in the milk.
Milk production started in April of this year, when the ewes lambed. Their top producer is making one gallon a day, which, Sippel admits, isn’t going to sound like much to a traditional dairyman. They are currently milking 30 head of sheep once a day.
“We knew we wouldn’t have the volume of milk needed for awhile,” Ben said. But he added the volume is growing and they are producing cheese.
In addition, a sheep dairy can grow in size faster than a cow dairy because of the number of multiple births sheep are known for. Ewes born this spring will be ready to join the milking flock next spring, and will increase the herd size to 60 in 2012.
The Sippels say milk production gains steadily after the first lactation in sheep and keeps growing for four years. Milk sheep generally have their peak production in the fourth year. The goal for milk production is for a ewe to produce 30 pounds in 30 days.
Designing the parlor
There were other things to do, too, including constructing a building, finding refrigeration coolers and utensils to produce large amounts of cheese and… learning to care for and milk the sheep.
Ben said he read everything he could get his hands on from the University of Wisconsin (the only land grant university with a dairy sheep science center) about sheep dairies and talked to the professors in the programs about the process. They also visited sheep dairies and found out how they worked.
Ben went to work designing the milking parlor from the information he gathered. In their six-stanchion parlor, sheep are walked up the ramp and a milking machine is attached to the udder. The milk is gathered in buckets and then carried to the milk cooler.
The dairy is regularly inspected by the Ohio Department of Agriculture and must submit to the same regulations as Grade A cow dairies.
Difference in dairy
Sheep require less vacuum pressure than dairy cattle, but require 120 pulses per minute, which is double the number of pulsations used to milk a cow. Sippel said the ewes need a really fast speed in order to properly stimulate the udder.
Sippel said there are many other benefits to milking sheep including the fact that they can milk out in about 60 seconds. In Europe, the average sheep dairy milks 700 in an hour.
He added sheep dairies are more popular in Europe than in the United States, but Wisconsin has the most in the States, with approximately 35 in operation there.
The Sippels plans on building the dairy, and say their ideal number is between 125-150 milking sheep in the flock.