Farming Magazine - May, 2008

FEATURES

The Clarks and the Golden Fleece

Shepherding a successful cheese operation
By Richard Triumpho

Winter sunshine creates a balmy morning on the Shaker Museum Road at the signpost of the Old Chatham Sheepherding Co. Only a thin layer of snow covers the grass in a pasture where a flock of about 50 sheep suddenly stop grazing and lift their heads. They amble purposely toward a fence along a side lane where a man with a tractor and wagon has just appeared; he begins spreading chopped hay in a long ribbon under the fence.

This farm is known to have one of the largest flock of dairy sheep in America—more than 1,500 of the wooly creatures—making Old Chatham Sheepherding Co. the biggest producer of sheep milk cheese and yogurt in the country.

Baby lambs are comfortable in the greenhouse barn. Lambs of different ages are in separate pens. Milk is pasteurized in these three stainless steel tanks. Then, culture and rennet are added depending on the product needed: Camembert, blue cheese or yogurt.

The flock manager

Beth Levine, the flock manager, is in the greenhouse barn. Young lambs, from newborns to six-week-old weaned lambs, are housed here, in rows of pens on both sides of a center aisle. Levine and one of her assistant herdsmen are scraping used bedding from the pens on the left side, carting it to a compost pile outside and then forking fresh chopped hay bedding into the pens.

“We put down fresh bedding once a week,” Levine says, and explains how important this is for the comfort and health of the baby lambs. After all, lambs are the farm’s future.

Levine has a degree in natural resource management from Sterling College in northeast Vermont. She came to work here about 10 years ago. As flock manager she is responsible for the 1,500 sheep—the feeding, breeding, health and milking. She has two full-time assistant herdspeople, and three part-time people to help with milking. In the summer there are also two full-time farmhands for fieldwork.

“About half the flock is always in the main barn because they are either being milked, or they are expecting within the next month,” she says. “And, the other half of the sheep are always out on pasture because they are either in breeding groups with a ram, or else they are in some early stage of pregnancy. We also have a ‘light treatment’ group of ewes, and they are out on pasture, too.”

The light treatment, she explains, is designed to get one group of ewes to breed out of season. Most breeds of sheep have evolved with a reproductive cycle in synch with the seasons: their cycle is photosensitive. The ewes come in estrous during the short-daylight months of autumn and are bred; they are pregnant, but not lactating during winter when food is scarce, and give birth to lambs in the long-daylight spring when new grass provides plenty of forage the ewes need to produce milk for the babies during summer. The ewes dry up in autumn, and the cycle is repeated.

By using artificial lighting in a barn, a group of ewes can be fooled to cycle out of season. “For this group,” Levine says, “we use extended lighting in their barn for three months in winter, followed by two months of natural lighting, and then they are put with the ram in March. So, the ewes will give birth in October and produce milk all winter.

“Plus, we have a couple hundred lambs growing all the time, because we do lamb all year-round. So it’s a lot of animals,” she adds.

“We leave the newborn lambs with the moms to nurse at least a couple of days,” she says. “Then, we separate them, put the ewes in the milking group and bring the lambs in this greenhouse barn where we bottle feed them a couple days, and then get them used to this automatic milk feeder so they can feed themselves. The unit is made by a company called BioTech Industries in Tennessee.”

Levine explains how the automatic milker works.

“Well, it’s holding powdered milk formula in a hopper,” she answers. “Then, it mixes about 12 ounces of fresh formula on demand. As a lamb starts to suck the nipple, a level sensor turns the mixer on. So it’s only mixing a little bit at a time. It really has reduced any problem we had with bloat on artificially raising lambs, because the temperature stays consistent and the freshness is consistent.”

The Old Chatham Sheepherding Co. is located on the Shaker Museum Road in Columbia County, N.Y.

How the farm began

Tom and Nancy Clark began the Old Chatham Sheepherding Co. in 1995 when they bought the entire flock of 150 Dorset ewes from the former Hollow Road Farm in Stuyvesant, N.Y. The Dorsets are primarily a meat breed and produce only 2 or 3 pounds of milk a day.

The Clarks bought several hundred acres of rolling farmland in the Old Chatham area, built some Shaker-style barns and began breeding the Dorset ewes to East Friesian rams, a dairy breed of sheep that can produce double the ordinary volume of milk.

Tom’s interest in sheep dates from when he was 10 years old and won a ribbon for one of his Suffolk sheep at the 1953 Dutchess County Fair. Although his adult life took him far in the business world of leveraged buyouts, he kept a soft spot in his heart for sheep and was determined to some day have a flock of his own. He recognized the burgeoning demand of Americans for cheese in the 1980s and 1990s—especially artisanal cheese—as a golden opportunity for him to at last become a shepherd, and to develop a thriving cheese business as well.

Old Chatham Sheepherding Co. is the result. The Clarks now have John Slotter as overall operations manager and Jason Lippman as creamery manager, along with Levine.

“Tom Clark actually coordinates a lot of the summer field work himself,” Levine says. “That’s part of his enjoyment of owning the farm. He and Nancy live just up the road, so he’s here every week.”

A typical day for the flock manager

Levine’s day begins at 6:30 a.m. with the milking of the 300 ewes. The milking parlor is in an L-wing of the main barn, so ewes can easily be herded from the pens to the parlor. The parlor holds 24 ewes on each side. The ewes enter eagerly because they know there is some grain in the manger in front of the stanchion headlocks. When 24 ewes are all in on one side, the headlocks are closed, and then the whole unit rolls back about 2 feet, bringing the rear ends (and udders) close to the parlor pit. Two people do the milking, one person responsible for each side.

There is a 2-inch stainless steel lowline milk pipeline for each side. The Alfa-Laval milking units have automatic detachers, which prevent overmilking. “We have experienced better udder health since we installed the automatic takeoffs,” she says. “There is a digital meter on every unit so we record each ewe’s monthly production. Every ewe is on our computer with her individual record that tracks lambing, breeding events and yearly production.”

It takes about two and a half hours for the milking, including cleanup of the parlor. The milk goes into a 500-gallon bulk tank in the milk house adjacent to the parlor.

Old Chatham’s main barn. The milking parlor and the manager’s office are in the wing on the left.

With milking done, it’s now time to put out the morning feeding for the 300 ewes. The TMR (Total Mixed Ration) is a mixture of ground alfalfa hay, ground corn and a mineral mix package. A tractor hauls the TMR mixer slowly down the barn’s center aisle and distributes the ration into mangers in front of the pens.

After the ewes are fed, the rest of the morning is occupied with routine herd health care. This might entail sorting breeding groups, vaccinations, tattooing or hoof trimming. “At the minimum we do hoof trimming twice a year,” Levine says. “The first time is when ewes give birth to the lambs and enter the milking group; the second time we trim when they are dried off about six months later. We have a turning table that we put at the end of our handling chute,” she adds. “It saves a lot of heavy lifting, and it’s much less stressful for the ewes.”

Levine explains that they tattoo all the lambs at seven to eight months of age; that’s when they are ready to be added to the main flock and exposed to a breeding group. “A breeding group is about 25 ewes and a ram,” she adds.

“Of course, the lambs get an ear tag at birth,” she says. “But, the tattoo becomes a permanent ID and that also qualifies as our scrapie identification. One ear is tattooed with the lamb’s individual number, and the other ear has the flock number.

“To my knowledge, scrapie has never been a problem in New York State,” Levine adds. (With the ID program the USDA hopes to eliminate scrapie from the entire country.)

The reproductive program

A few days after a ewe gives birth she enters the milking group. “We don’t breed back while they are in lactation,” Levine says. “It seems to be too much stress for their system. After we dry them off, then we put them out to be bred.

She explains that the dry ewes are put out to pasture in three separate breeding groups, with one ram per group. “Every ewe in the flock is given an A, B or C designation,” she says, “and then they are bred to a ram least related to them. Right now, because of the lack of genetic diversity in dairy sheep in this country—because we can’t import from other countries where scrapie hasn’t been eradicated—we’re using the best sons of our best milking ewes.”

The rams all wear a nylon brisket harness containing a color crayon marker, so as they mount a ewe they’re leaving a crayon mark on her wool. “Every two weeks, we bring the breeding flocks in,” Levine says. “We record the marks, change the color on the ram and put the groups back out to pasture.” After three weeks, if a ewe has been color marked, but not re-marked, it’s safe to assume she is pregnant, and Levine will move her to a group of bred ewes in a separate pasture.

The creamery

Jason Lippman, the creamery manager, and his two assistants are almost finished making the morning’s production of yogurt and Camembert cheese by noon.

A small office in the creamery houses the milk testing equipment and two computers that monitor the entire creamery operation. “We test all our milk for somatic cell count,” he explains, “every day’s milking, plus what we buy in. We’re averaging 200,000 to 400,000 SCC.

“This computer screen shows all our pasteurizers, and our bulk tanks where our milk is stored, and lets us know the amount and temperature,” he continues. “For instance, it shows that right now we have yogurt in P-2 [a bulk tank], it tells us the temperature, how much milk is added and lets us know when the yogurt is ready to be bottled. This other computer monitors the temperature and humidity of the cooling rooms where our cheese is aged.

“Since we are a New York State monitored facility, these printed charts are a permanent record to show the tanks are being cleaned and the milk is being pasteurized,” Lippman points out. “So, if ever we have a recall there is a paper trail to show what happened to that milk, or yogurt or cheese.”

Lippman said that in summer they make cheese five or six days a week, but during winter when the sheep milk production is lower, they make cheese only four days a week. Yogurt, however, is made six days a week, all year long. In addition to Old Chatham’s own fresh milk, which is available every day of the year, Tom buys fresh sheep milk from Scott Burrington, a shepherd in Montgomery County, but Burrington’s flock of 100 ewes is seasonal, producing milk only April through September.

“So, in order to keep our output of cheese meeting demand, we buy frozen sheep milk from Wisconsin to supplement our own milk,” Lippman says. “We get a truckload about once a month. A truckload is 16 pallets; there are 50 plastic bags of frozen milk per pallet, and the bags hold nearly 5 gallons each, so a pallet weighs about 2,000 pounds.

“We crack the frozen block of milk into smaller pieces and introduce it into our milk in the 300-gallon pasteurizing tank,” he continues. “We heat it up and pasteurize it, and then continue with the cheesemaking process.”

Lippman explains that to make Camembert he adds a Camembert culture and rennet to the pasteurized milk and waits until the curd is formed. Then he cuts the curd, and his assistants ladle it into small round molds on the table where the whey drains off and the cheese firms up. From here, the racks of the small Camembert go to the first cooling room where the white Camembert mold begins to grow and cover the cheese. After a few days, the cheese is moved to another aging room of cooler temperature and lower humidity.

“Blue cheese requires us to take special precautions,” Lippman explains. “That’s because the bacteria culture, Penicillium roqueforti , is very invasive; even a few spores floating in the air can infect other batches of cheese under production. So, we handle blue cheese culture in a separate building, in a room next to the milking parlor, and anyone working there today can’t return here to the creamery until they’ve showered and had a complete change of clothes. We don’t want blue veining and sharp flavor to show up in our creamy white Camembert.”

Finally, after aging, all cheese goes to the packaging room where every batch is tasted before it is packaged. Any batch that doesn’t pass the tasting is rejected. The cheese and yogurt are packaged with the “Black Sheep” label and go to the cold storage room until shipping. Product is shipped twice a week, by FedEx, to distributors from coast to coast.

The attention to detail at Old Chatham Sheepherding Co., from care of the lambs, to handling the flocks and milking, to operation of the creamery, results in high quality, award-winning products. Their Hudson Valley Camembert was “Best of Class” at the 2006 World Championship Cheese Contest; their Ewe’s Blue was “Top Finish” at the 2005 American Cheese Society Judging; the Black Sheep Yogurt Collection was third place winner at the 2006 American Cheese Society Competition; and the Fresh Sheep’s Milk Cheese with Garlic & Herbs was “First Place Winner” at the 2005 American Cheese Society Judging.

Black Sheep Cheese is sold at some of the finest stores in the country, including Balducci’s and Dean & Deluca in New York City, as well as Whole Foods stores nationwide. Black Sheep Cheese and yogurt can also be ordered from the Web site www.BlackSheepCheese.com.

The author is a freelance contributor based in St. Johnsville, N.Y.