“HOW’D THEY DO THAT?” HOMESTEADING SERIES (POST #2) – Raising sheep for milk
HERE’S HOW ONE NOVA SCOTIA FAMILY STARTED A SHEEP DAIRY FROM SCRATCH AND HOW YOU CAN TOO.
Sunrise. April 2017.
Meghan Spares felt a surge of panic as she watched her ewe struggling in vain to give birth.
A quick check and she easily discovered the problem – the lamb’s tail. The baby was coming backward.
As a newbie shepherdess, Meghan’s mind was racing with angst as she uselessly tried to recall what to do.
So she did what any new farmer would – she ran as if her ewe’s life depended on it to search for her book on lambing.
“You have to push them back enough to be able to swing their back legs around and pull really quick,” she describes. “If you do it too slowly, they might not survive.”
To her great relief, she was able to save the lamb and the ewe from certain disaster. Amazingly, the ewe went on to give birth to three more lambs. Their first set of quads born on the farm.
“I was in awe and I hope I never lose that awe,” she recalls. “I thought…we don’t have to go to church today. It’s all happening right here.”
Meghan and her husband Aaron are the owners of Bazel’s Place, a 30-acre sheep dairy in Avondale, Nova Scotia combining dykelands and an old-growth apple orchard on the Avon Peninsula in West Hants.
Meghan was born and raised in Moncton, New Brunswick where she grew up in a typical urban setting with a family that considered livestock to be the household cat and dog. But she always had an interest in farming and livestock, so after graduating from Moncton High School, she moved to Truro to attend Nova Scotia Agricultural College.
During her studies in agribusiness, she put together a business plan on raising sheep for milk as part of a school project and has wanted to milk sheep ever since.
But after graduation, she moved to Scotland and earned a Masters of Science in Project Management. So instead of working on a farm, she worked on construction in Oxford.
“At the pub with colleagues, I would always joke that ‘one day I will move back to Nova Scotia and milk sheep’,” she laughs. “Never did I believe it was true, but it was fun to have the dream.”
Everything changed when she returned to Nova Scotia in 2013 and met her future husband, a biologist.
“Similar to me, he grew up in the suburbs of Halifax but always loved country life and learned about farming from his grandfather,” she says. “It wasn’t long until we found an old farm that needed a family and we got to work. I was in complete disbelief the entire time. Still, somedays, I stop and think ‘are we really doing this?’ I LOVE it.”
Together, she and Aaron, bought the farm in 2014 when Meghan was pregnant with their first child. He was born in February 2015 and they packed up and moved into the farmhouse in May of that same year.
Like most couples who take on old houses, making the place livable was a real challenge. She recalls waking many mornings without any water because the pipes had frozen again.
But they didn’t let the renovations stop them from making their long-held farming dreams a reality.
In January 2016 they purchased their first purebred British Milk Sheep, a rare multipurpose breed for meat, milk, and wool. Typically, the girls are bred in the fall and after the lambs have been weaned in the spring, they milk twice a day until August. They continue milking once a day for another couple of months.
The milk is frozen and sold to Blue Harbour Cheese in Halifax, Nova Scotia, an artisanal cheese producer specializing in fine traditional and not so traditional handmade blue cheeses. One of their specialties is a unique blue cheese made from the farm’s pure, unpasteurized ewe’s milk.
They also sell their milk to All Lathered Up Soap Company in Windsor, Nova Scotia where they make handmade soap from sheep’s milk.
How did the couple get to this point in just two years? Courage, hard work, and a lot of planning.
They began their adventures in raising sheep for milk in 2016 with a single ram, five ewes, and a 6-month-old livestock guardian donkey named Scrubber.
“It was pure luck that we ended up with great sheep but I am so thankful. We chose the breed based on a hunch and it was right. The sellers, Eric and Elisabeth Bzikot from Best Baa Farm in Ontario, have been wonderful mentors and their guidance/support has been invaluable.
The sheep had a high health status that we’ve very carefully tried to maintain. This means they are less susceptible to disease, they are hardy, and maintaining this health status will earn a premium for breeding stock.”
A few months later they had their second child and in October they were presented with a too-good-to-pass-up opportunity to buy another 32 ewes from the same farm. After punching the numbers, it turned out to be a wise decision. “We thought of growing our flock to 100 ewes from the original five but it actually made better business sense to buy more ewes and get to our goal faster.”
After their first season raising milk sheep and lambing in 2017, their 37 ewes gave birth to 97 viable lambs (that’s 2.6 lambs per ewe). “We kept the majority of the ewe lambs to grow our own flock so we currently have 72 ewes with rams for lambing this spring.” Their goal is to milk 100 ewes.
Aaron and Meghan have two children – the farm’s youngest employees.
Taking the plunge into full-time farming
When they began their adventure, Meghan worked at Dalhousie University as a Planner in their Facilities Management Department, but following the end of her second maternity leave, with 40 ewes to milk and 90 lambs to look after, they decided it was best for her to stay home.
Aaron works contract work and, apart from when he’s doing fieldwork, his schedule is flexible, which helps the couple juggle farm chores and child care.
Although Meghan admits she is still a newbie herself who is always open to advice, here are her tips for other new farmers who would like to follow a similar path.
Don’t let your fear stop you; you will have what it takes.
“My biggest fear when I started was the dark and rats. I’m overcoming both of those. I also dreaded death. The idea of slaughtering an animal was the number one reason why I didn’t want to farm livestock, but I was able to let nature take its course on that one. I just started farming with faith that when the time comes, I would be strong enough to accept it. And I did. As was the case with other losses I worried about facing. Every ‘event’ both good and bad is an opportunity to learn. Make sure you learn.”
Not only are British Milk Sheep excellent milk producers, but they also have a good quality carcass and their wool is sought after.
Start becoming a jack-of-all-trades
“I think the key to farming success lies in how resourceful you can be.”
Cancel your gym membership
“It’s too expensive and if you still need it – work harder.”
Meghan recommends new farmers start small and learn the ropes before jumping into more than they can handle. But she warns against staying too long in the hobby zone or you could deplete your resources – leaving you with nothing to invest in growth.
Be open to advice
“A few people have told me we will do well because we are willing to listen and we understand we genuinely don’t have a clue,” she laughs. “Apparently some new farmers believe they know it all. They are high-risk beginners. I asked so many questions without shame of how silly it seemed. I did exactly as I was told to do and will continue that way on every subject matter until I learn better.”
For example, they started with five ewes and went through a lambing before they jumped in numbers.
“That was advice I was given and it was smart. The first ‘big’ year was still a huge jump but at least we’d gotten our feet wet.”
British Milk Sheep also possess good wool with a staple length of 12 to 18 cm.
Good neighbors are priceless
Ask other farmers for help. They know the deal.
Focus on what really matters
My goal has been to maintain the quality of our products and ensure the five freedoms of our livestock – freedom from hunger and thirst; discomfort; pain, injury, or disease; to express normal behavior; and freedom from fear and distress. Those are the items that define my priorities on the ‘to do’ list.
You can’t do everything
“You have to accept everything isn’t going to get done. Remember to look beyond the pile of wood that needs to be moved or the loose barn boards to see everything you have done. And give yourself a pat on the back. It is no easy feat and so many people wouldn’t even dare try.”
There are days when it just never seems to end and you don’t know how you can cope… or at least there was for us. But keep going. The rough patches are temporary and once they pass, you can barely remember them (kinda like the sleepless nights with a newborn!).
Their flock is currently made up of 72 ewes as well as a few rams. Their goal is to milk 100 ewes.
Can you earn a living raising sheep for milk as a small scale farmer?
“It’s definitely possible to break even and gain some benefit from the farm but if money is your motivator – do not get into farming! I always knew there was no money in farming but now I really know.”
Their farm is still in its early stages so she and Aaron are focusing on growing and productivity.
“You are dealing with nature so there’s no control. This year we lost four ram lambs that were ready for the market to a bacterial infection. The economic impact was a loss of at least $1,200 plus the vet bills for trying to prevent the losses. There are so many unknowns… You just keep going and you ‘live in hope’.”
Meghan admits the past couple of years have been a roller coaster ride full of incredible highs and lows, but she wouldn’t change a thing. “I’m always amazed by how we can keep going. I love this life. It’s the hardest life I’ve ever lived but that’s what makes it so fulfilling. I hope I can keep living it for decades more.”
Must-read books on raising sheep for milk
Here are a few books that helped Meghan during her journey raising milk sheep.
Storey’s Barn Guide to Sheep
In a hands-free format that allows you to hang it on a barn wall for easy reference, this guide covers everything you need to know to safely and effectively care for your sheep. Providing clear step-by-step instructions for common procedures like trimming hooves, shearing, milking, and administering injections, Storey’s Barn Guide to Sheep also includes full-color anatomical illustrations, a lambing calendar, and nutritional advice. You’ll save on veterinary bills and increase your operation’s self-sufficiency as you successfully raise healthy and happy sheep.
Storey’s Guide to Raising Sheep
Drawing from years of hands-on experience, Paula Simmons and Carol Ekarius provide expert advice on breed selection, lambing, feeding, housing, pasture maintenance, and medical care. You’ll also find tips on profitably marketing your meat and fiber products, as well as information on obtaining organic certifications.
Practical Sheep Dairying
An excellent read on dairy sheep management.
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If you want to learn more about how to start a farm, stay tuned. I will be interviewing several other farmers in our area to find out how they began their homesteading adventures and their advice for those starting out.
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