Not your average dairy
When many people think of a dairy, they think of black and white cows. Some may even think of a goat dairy. However, a dairy located in Bushnell, Neb., is neither of those species. This dairy is a sheep dairy, and one of only about 100 in the U.S.
Sheep have been milked for centuries in Europe, but the industry is very much in its infancy in the United States. The Irish Cream Sheep Dairy was started in 1995 by the Halligan Family, who had been in the business of raising sheep for nearly 30 years.
One day Virginia Halligan read an article she had clipped from the newspaper about a sheep dairy in Eastern Nebraska. The family already owned a small herd of Dorset Ewes, and knew they were good milkers based on the lambs that they raised.
This is when the sheep dairy was born. Virginia and her husband Bill began the dairy, and then their son Cody moved home to help run the dairy. At the time, he was a herdsman at a large dairy in Wyoming, so he had dairy experience and Virginia grew up on cow dairy. They originally started with 20 Dorset ewes.
“We decided to get into the sheep dairy business because we were looking for something else that would pay. We already had experience with sheep, and saw an opportunity with the dairy. It doesn’t take nearly the land to run a sheep dairy as it does a cow dairy,” said Cody Halligan.
Now the dairy is run by Cody and Virginia, and they have four full-time employees including two full-time milkers. The dairy sheep are a mixture of Dorset, East Friesian and Lacaune breeds, and the dairy has 800 head.
Currently, the family is milking 250 ewes, and at their peak they will be milking nearly 650. The sheep are milked by machines twice a day, and it all goes into a bulk tank. From there, employees measure and bag the milk in five-gallon bags (which weigh 44 pounds), where they are then laid flat and are frozen.
The majority of the milk is shipped to California, and this time of year it takes about 40 days to produce enough milk for a full load to be shipped. Some of the milk is also shipped to Windsor, Colo. At peak production, the family can send a load every two weeks.
Almost all of the milk will be made into cheese. Sheep’s milk is considered ideal for cheesemaking, because one pound of milk will produce twice as much cheese as one pound of cow’s milk, according to Halligan.
Many popular cheeses are made from sheep’s milk, including Feta, Roquefort (blue cheese), Manchego, the Pecorino Romano and Ricotta.
Eventually, the family would like to be able to pasteurize and bottle the milk, so that it can be sold fresh to cheesemakers in the area.
“With bottled milk there is a quicker turn around time in terms of getting money back,” said Halligan.
Managing revenues and expenses is important to any business, but it is especially important in agricultural businesses because revenue tends to flucuate depending on the time of the year.
The dairy sits on 460 acres, of which 10-15 are used for the dairy itself. The rest of the land is used to produce crops that will help feed the ewes. Irrigated alfalfa is produced on 80 acres, and the rest are rotational row crops. High feed costs are also an issue for the dairy.
“We want to eventually make all of our own feed. This will help eliminate some risk for us,” Halligan said.
Another risk the Halligan’s face is the way that sheep breed. Sheep can be more difficult to manage in a dairy because they are seasonal breeders, and prefer to breed in the fall and lamb in the spring. It is the goal of any dairy to produce milk year-round, so this can be a challenge.
“We have found that the East Fresians and Dorset ewes will breed out of season, and so it is our goal to eventually be lambing three times in two years,” said Halligan.
When the lambs are born, they are allowed to nurse from the mother for six to eight hours to make sure they receive colostrum, and then they are moved to an inside pen with other young lambs. The lambs have rubber nipples they can drink from whenever they want.
The ewes that just lambed are put into a “fresh” pen, and that milk is fed back to the lambs. After a few days these ewes join the rest of the milking herd. Twelve ewes can be milked at a time in the parlor, and while those 12 are being milked, another 12 can be prepared on the other side of the aisle. Each day, a dairy ewe will produce about a half gallon of milk.
The dairy will then milk the sheep for 200 days, and then they are left dry for 60 days to recover. Sheep have a gestation of five months, and usually have twins.
“We usually have right at around a 200 percent lambing crop,” he said.
Once the lambs are big enough, they are moved to a bigger pen, where they can be inside or outside. The lambs will still be fed from an artificial nipple on the wall, but this milk is now from cows. The family keeps a small herd of Jersey cows, and they are there strictly to feed the lambs.
After about 30 days, the lambs are weaned and are put onto a total mixed ration. The Halligans will keep some ewe lambs for replacements in their own herd, and the rest are sold as feeder lambs.
“There is a really good market for feeder lambs right now, so we will ship a lot of them to a feedlot to be fed out,” he said.
Initially, the family was keeping every ewe lamb they had on the place to expand the dairy, but now that they are at a larger size, they can be more selective.
“We no longer want to increase the quantity of ewes that we have. Instead, we want to be more selective and increase the milk production per ewe,” Halligan said.
The past few years the dairy has sent lambs to other dairies in New York and California, where some of the largest sheep dairies in the country exist.
However, this year the family is only selling small quantities of ewe lambs, and they are usually sold to people who want to start building their own dairy.
“When we started we had a really hard time finding quality ewes, so that is what we are offering to other people now,” Halligan said.
In the coming months, the dairy will be lambing several hundred ewes, and the dairy will get busier every day. However, the family won’t mind. “We love what we do here,” said Halligan.