While dairy cows dominate Wisconsin agriculture, there’s a new kid on the block – the milking ewe. Still wet-behind-its-ears in comparison to this state’s long-standing tradition of cow dairying, Wisconsin’s dairy sheep industry looks like it’s here to stay – and grow – if producers like Jeff and Vicky Simpkins are any indication.
This heads-up Polk County couple has built themselves an impressive dairy sheep operation and companion farmstead cheese plant. Looking ahead, they see Shepherd’s Ridge Creamery as a vocation for retirement and a family-friendly business with potential to grow with involvement of their daughter and possibly their grandkids.
Already, sheep dairying and seasonal production of aged, raw milk cheeses is a full-time enterprise for Vicky, a former emergency room nurse-turned licensed cheesemaker, as well as for their daughter, Katie, and their sole employee, Jason Boleen. Jeff still commutes from their farm near St. Croix Falls to several hospitals in the area, where he’s a nurse anesthetist.
While Jeff grew up working on farms near Prior Lake, Minnesota (about a half hour south of the Twin cities), Vicky grew up in the resort business near Siren. Her dad and grandfather were cheesemakers. She’s proud to be following in their footsteps – though in a rather non-traditional way – and has, in fact, named one of her artisan sheep-milk cheeses Poplar Lake after her granddad’s Poplar Lake Creamery in Dresser. Having grown up on “fabulous cheese,” Vicky says when she tasted sheep cheese, she was “sold.”
This couple met in the military. They’ve had their farm 20 years. Earlier, they’d both commuted across the Mississippi River to medical jobs in the Twin Cities, while trying this and that enterprise on what was then a hobby farm – from beef cow/calf to pigs to raising dairy bull calves as steers. With Jeff away a lot, Vicky found it difficult to manage steers by herself. They decided to explore sheep, which Vicky, from childhood, recalled her grandpa raising.
Intent on doing things right, they took tech-college classes with Pine City, Minn. sheep producer Janet McNally, and attended Spooner Sheep Days at the UW experiment station, where they were introduced to milking sheep, and the prospect of “steadier” cash-flow than raising sheep for meat alone. They visited multiple sheep dairies (in Wisconsin, Vermont and New York) and attended the Dairy Sheep Association of North America (CSANA) symposium. Their sheep dairy was seven years in the planning. They’ve been milking sheep and making sheep milk cheese now for three years – one of probably only 100 such operations in North America.
The Simpkinses have 160 acres, with 50 acres of hay and 60 acres in 28 paddocks, which they rotationally graze. Their perimeter fence is woven wire. They subdivide with electrified netting and have permanent lanes. Every spring Jeff selects a couple areas of pasture to disk and replant with white clover, brome and timothy. They buy grain, as well as hay, for their flock.
At present, they’re milking 96 ewes twice a day and have another dozen ewes that are dry. They crossbreed with Lacaune (a French dairy breed Jeff likens to Jerseys, due to slightly less milk but higher butterfat), East Friesian (the “Holstein” of dairy sheep with a lot of milk but lower fat) and Dorset (known for their good temperament). The Simpkinses feel crossbreds are heartier, have better butterfat and mothering ability.
The goal is for sheep to milk 180 days. When Agri-View recently visited, their ewes were averaging 3 pounds of milk per head per day. They’ll be down to more like a pound a day nearer to dry-off. Butterfat runs 7 to 7-1/2 percent, protein 5-1/2. The ewes lamb at the end of February and into March and hit peak milk two to three weeks after lambing before tapering off slightly but then bumping up again when they hit pasture. The flock is synchronized to tighten up lambing via fenceline exposure of ewes to rams, before Jeff actually turns three rams in with three breeding groups of ewes. Their lambing percentage is 170 percent lambs born (which includes his replacement ewe lambs, which lamb at a year of age), with a lamb death loss of 5 percent. They sell wethers, weighing 50 pounds, to a private feedlot but retain all ewe lambs, as their goal is to get up to 200 ewes milking.
Ewes are wintered on round bales and flushed with a little corn in the fall. When the flock is milking, the ewes get 3 pounds of whole corn with molasses and soy in the parlor. The flock lambs in a Quonset-type shed. A new 36X48 greenhouse-type barn houses lambs. Lambs stay with ewes for three days before being pulled off as the ewes go in the parlor. Lambs are fed ewe’s milk, however, due to the price of replacer. Jeff says lambs are weaned at 30 pounds but not before 30 days of age.
Ewes are milked in a double-12 parlor with in-floor heat in the pit, eating their corn while in headlocks. Two people can milk 100 ewes in an hour (not including clean-up). They use 12 claws and milk every other ewe. Teats are sprayed with iodine and wiped. Jeff, who milked many a cow in the past, says ewes are more pleasant to milk what with no tails and pelleted manure. They are, however, harder to treat for mastitis than cows, he admits.
To become a licensed cheesemaker, Vicky took short courses at UW-Madison and River Falls and put in a 300-hour internship under a cheesemaker. Today, she turns out five types of hard cheeses, which are aged in a poured-concrete underground “cave” on the farm maintained at 52 degrees. Besides her Poplar Lake cheese (a Sicilian Pecorino-type), Vicky produces an Asiago-style cheese called Oliver’s Reserve, named for her grandfather Oliver Olson. Her Rock Creek is a Manchego-style, named for the creek that borders their farm. Her Pinecrest is a Tomme-style (i.e. French cheese). Finally, her Ben Muelken (a washed curd cheese) is named for Jeff’s grandpa who was a milk hauler.
Shepherd’s Ridge Creamery cheeses are sold on the farm, as well as at upscale grocery stores in Minnesota’s Twin Cities and Madison. Restaurants also seek out their sheep milk cheeses. They’ve been selling out of their cheese every year.
When asked what she enjoys about her second career, Vicky says – only half in jest – “nobody dies making cheese.” Working in an intensive-care unit is stressful and high-speed work. On the other hand, making cheese, with assistance from her daughter, is fulfilling in a much different way. And it provides flexibility to be involved in grandchildren’s activities and the ability to rent a motor home in the fall and head out for vacation.
Longer-term, they’re looking at licensing their commercial kitchen (in the same facility as their farmstead creamery). Katie is a fantastic cheesecake maker and baker. There’s a possibility of working more into ag tourism. They’re already diversifying by selling eggs off the farm and raise 300 some broilers, which customers pick up at the farm. With a large office/observation area for the parlor, they might offer sheep-milking classes eventually, along with possibly cheesemaking seminars. Cross-country skiing on the farm is another dream.
These producers say there’s good demand for sheep milk cheese with 65 million pounds imported every year. With Wisconsin’s dairy infrastructure, Jeff says this fledgling industry should be flourishing more than it is. Sheep milk can be frozen, which is a great convenience for start-up dairies. Vicky says sheep milk cheese is a “high-yield cheese” and the milk is “homogenized naturally.” But the real clincher is its great taste.