Arizona’s Rovey Dairy expands niche in cows, sheep

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Rovey Dairy Jerseys
Jersey cows, at Rovey Dairy, in Glendale, Arizona, crane their necks for a better view, Jan. 22. The dairy milks 1,800 cows, twice daily, and is building up a 1,200-ewe sheep dairy to hit other niche markets. (Rebecca Miller photo)

GLENDALE, Ariz. — There is a legacy and history in the ground Paul Rovey stands on, even with a “cotton pickin’ freeway” running through it these days. But there is also promise.

Arizona just celebrated its centennial in 2012. By Eastern standards, that’s not much history. But the Rovey family has lived in the Phoenix area for generations. His father, Emil, was born just four years after Arizona became a state. When he graduated from University of Arizona, he came back to his home turf and bought the first acreage of what is now Rovey Dairy, in 1942.

Backing into it

To hear Paul tell it, most of the decisions they’ve made about new ventures happened by accident. The family had Jerseys at first, but switched to Holsteins. Almost 40 years ago, Paul went to a Jersey dairy with the intention of buying some older heifers close to calving for his children’s fair projects. The owner was retiring. “I came home that day with 380 Jersey heifers,” he said.

It was a learning curve. They had to figure out how to manage Jerseys. The calves required a learning curve of their own as well. But they got the hang of it, and sold out of Holsteins. The dairy has the capacity to milk just over 2,000. Right now, they milk about 1,800, twice a day. The milk is marketed through a dairy cooperative.

Enter: sheep

But cows aren’t the only thing Rovey Dairy has. In grassy paddocks and loafing areas, Dorper, East Friesian and a few Lacaune sheep move through the grass or relax in the shade of flat roofed shelters.

Hoofs clatter up into a homemade, eight-stall, milking stand, as workers attach a milking machine, also homemade. Paul Rovey said, as a grade B certified operation, they are allowed to have an open air parlor. All milk goes to make cheese.

Paul says he backed into sheep as well. He had been buyer of last resort at local fairs for youth market projects. They had small fields that weren’t useful for large equipment. He thought, why not keep the ewe lambs from sales? He liked lamb. He could grow his own.

About 10 years go, he started with meat breeds and then got some Dorpers, a hair sheep. At a dairy meeting, he told an ag economist friend about his Dorpers. The friend asked him why he wasn’t milking them. Paul was incredulous. “Nobody milks a sheep.”

But then he saw the numbers on the price of sheep milk and cheese, “and I said, ‘Oh, we’re going to milk the Dorpers.’” They have about 1,200 now, but are only milking about 25. They can’t keep up with the demand for the cheese though.

Different, but good?

Dairy sheep are different than cows or even goats, said Debbie Webster, a representative of the Dairy Sheep Association of North America. “Here’s the problem with sheep milk,” she said. “Sheep have a limited amount, and they can only milk for a limited time.”

But those limited quantities though? She calls it, “liquid gold.” It’s not easy to find uniform statistics on what sheep’s milk brings these days, because there is no research service recording the data like cow dairy.

But Webster said her sheep’s milk, in South Carolina, goes for $28 a gallon, although most is marketed as half gallons. She added that sheep’s milk has three times the protein over goat’s or cow’s milk and more butterfat, too. Different markets bring different prices for the products. “It just depends on who you are and what you can get in your market,” Webster said.

New opportunity

Paul Rovey said he’s excited at the possibilities. They want to add sheep’s milk ice cream and yogurt when they get up and running. They can also grow out the lambs and sell them for meat.

The Roveys already have a growing market, selling to local restaurants. They cross their Jerseys to Wagyu, raise the steers and process them to fill orders. They have a growing demand for ground lamb and lamb meat cuts as well.

Oh, and they have Watusi cattle, a breed acquired because of their impressive horns. That too wasn’t an intentional branching out, but Paul Rovey said they decided to keep them around, even though he wasn’t roping anymore. “’Cause they’re fun,” he said. “And what’s life if you don’t have a little fun?” Now, the steers ride in an old car, dubbed the “cattle-lac,” in local parades. Paul says they enjoy it.

The Rovey family has farmed in various locations around the valley and further north for decades. Now, several of Paul Rovey’s children are involved in the farming. One, although not involved, runs a hair salon on the property.

A mile and a half away, you can see State Farm Stadium, home of the Arizona Cardinals National Football League team. A third of the ground it sits on was Rovey land. Currently, between the main farm and additional properties, the Roveys farm about 2,000 acres, Paul Rovey told Farm and Dairy.

Rain, go away

On a recent January day, the day after about a third of an inch of rain fell — a soaker by Arizona standards — the farm was still drying out. Arizona is built for dry weather, Paul explained. Not for wet. They’ve struggled through an unusually wet winter for their area. Just when it starts to dry out from one storm, another rolls through.

Water is a catch 22. Phoenix is growing rapidly. In just nine years, according to U.S. Census numbers, the city has grown by almost 14% between 2010 and 2019. The population hovers at 7.2 million and counting. Set in a sprawling valley, with bustling centers like Scottsdale and Glendale radiating out, the metro area gets its water from reservoirs up in the surrounding mountains.

That resource is considered finite, and has been a source of contention between Arizona and neighboring states. Paul Rovey hearkens back to the old saying, “Whiskey is for drinking. Water is for fighting.” It makes efficiency and renewable practices all the more important.

When he talks of his family’s crop farming, it’s calculated on water efficiency and overall return. Sugar beets, a feed source for both the cows and sheep, use half the water as corn silage and yield almost twice the amount per acre. They grow alfalfa, oats, barley and sorghum for silage. The majority of what they feed the cows and sheep is grown on family land.

Lemonade

“I always say I stumble into these things, like I stumbled into Jerseys … I didn’t get sheep with the intention of milking sheep,” he said. “You take lemons and you make lemonade.”

These days, that lemonade looks and tastes like sheep Gouda, “Pecorino Phoenician,” a Manchego called “Sunchego,” and an oops batch of Manchego that ended up with the name, “Peg Leg Jack.”

On the other side of the freeway sits a 53-foot shipping container. That, along with a second, will be the site of Rovey Dairy’s new milking parlor and processing facility for ice cream and yogurt. One will hold 34 sheep milking stalls and the other will hold the vats. The milk will be pasteurized as it travels from the parlor to the holding vats. Currently, a company based in the area makes the Roveys’ sheep cheeses.

That’s the beauty of sheep dairying too, Webster added. You can make small-batch cheeses, and you don’t need a giant cheese room.

Paul Rovey told Farm and Dairy he doesn’t see the sheep as a competitor to his Jersey dairy. It’s opening another niche for the family, which has had to ride the rocky milk prices over recent years. “The real challenge in the fluid (cow’s) milk market is we haven’t had companies innovate,” he said. “I look at the sheep milk thing as one way of innovating.”

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Farm and Dairy Editor-in-Chief Rebecca Miller was tapped to lead the newsroom in 2019. A veteran journalist, dog wrangler and traveler, she lives on a 220-acre, 325-ewe commercial sheep farm in Lisbon, Ohio, which she runs in partnership with her mother. She can be reached at 330-817-6179 or editor@farmanddairy.com.

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