by Cathy Gallivan, PhD
Axel Meister and Chris Buschbeck are true pioneers in the North American dairy sheep industry. They established the first commercial sheep dairy in Ontario over 20 years ago and have milked sheep ever since.
They got started in Germany, where they studied agriculture (Chris) and human nutrition (Axel). While in school, they rented a house on a sheep farm and helped out with the work. They arrived in Canada in 1988, with a dream of establishing their own sheep dairy, and bought their first flock of 20 crossbred Dorset ewes a year later.
At that time, the closest thing to a dairy ewe in Canada was the Rideau Arcott, a synthetic breed that is 14% East Friesian. The Rideau had only recently been released to the Canadian sheep industry but there was a flock at the University of Guelph, where Chris was working in the sheep research program. They bought Rideau rams from the university and upgraded their flock to a high percentage of Rideau breeding.
After milking the commercial ewes for two years, Chris and Axel were ready for animals with a greater genetic potential for milk production. The timing was right, as researchers at the university were getting ready to import frozen embryos from the UK, where AI and embryo transfer technology was further advanced.
The first import took place in 1994, and included 61 East Friesian embryos purchased by Chris and Axel. Using their commercial flock as recipients, they produced their first purebred lambs a year later. More embryos were obtained in 1995, this time from the Netherlands. The flock now consists of 80 East Friesian ewes, as well as a handful of purebred Texels.
I arrived for a visit in midafternoon, and was impressed by the beautiful farm and well-maintained yard.
The ewes were resting in the lower level of the bank barn, where they lambed from February to June; a few still had their lambs on them. The rest of the lambs had either already been shipped or were on feed in the nearby ‘tunnel’ barn.
An average ewe in the flock drops 2.1 lambs. Chris says they will lose lambs if no one is around when they are born. Between multiple births and large udders that are low to the ground, some of the newborns have trouble nursing for the first time. To make sure every lamb gets a good feed soon after birth, Axel pens each ewe with her lambs and administers colostrum by stomach tube to every lamb.
Ewes stay in the claiming pens for up to four days, depending on how many lambs they have and the availability of pens. After that, they are kept in small groups of three or four with their lambs.
Lambs stay on their mothers for 30 days, but the ewes start milking in the parlour three to seven days after lambing. Removing the milk left by the lambs during this period maximizes the ewes’ production during the lactation, and also saves the time and money it would cost to raise the lambs artificially. Milking begins each year when 15 or 20 ewes have lambed, enough to make it worthwhile to run the equipment.
The breeding season starts with laparoscopic AI for the top end of the flock. The ewes are synchronized with CIDRs, which have no requirement for milk withdrawal. After the CIDRs have been removed, however, Axel has to dispose of the milk from the AI ewes for 10 days because of the PMSG used in the synchronization and the penicillin given at insemination. The milk isn’t entirely wasted; it gets fed to a friend’s pasture pigs who apparently “love the stuff”.
After the AI cycle, a single ram with a marking harness is put in with the entire flock. A week or two later, the ram is removed and there is a break when there is no ram with the ewes. Then a second ram, also with a marking harness, goes in followed by another break. The process is repeated until as many as four different rams have been used. If Axel wants to prevent a particular ewe from being bred by the next ram in the rotation, he puts a CIDR in her until that ram’s turn with the ewes is over.
Ewe lambs are kept in a separate group with their own ram, and bred to lamb in April. This makes it easier to train them to go into the parlour, as they get added to the main group one by one. The ewe lambs are bred to Texel rams to produce a better lamb carcass. Because they don’t have any milk records yet, none of their offspring are eligible for selection as replacements.
The milking parlour can accommodate 12 ewes at a time. The ewes are anxious to come in because they get a kilogram of concentrate each at every milking. They are bigger than I expected, weighing 175-190 lb. on average, and I am reminded that most dairy animals need capacity for feed in order to produce large quantities of milk. The ewes are sheared twice a year, in March and October, to keep them as clean as possible when they come in the parlour.
There are six milking machines, so Axel wipes and strips the udder of every second ewe, and then puts machines on those six. By the time the last one is milking, it’s time for the machine to come off the first one. He then repeats the process with the other six ewes and all 12 exit the parlour.
Sheep’s milk can be frozen without altering its cheese-making potential. Chris and Axel freeze their milk in a walk-in freezer and deliver it to processors at regular intervals, rather than selling fresh milk from a bulk tank.
The pipeline ends in a 15-litre covered pail in the milk room. During the milking, as this pail fills up, Axel pours it off into another one, weighs it, and puts it in the freezer.
Between gathering the ewes, feeding and milking them, looking after the milk and cleaning up afterwards it takes Axel two hours to milk 60-70 ewes by himself, or just over an hour when he and Chris do it together.
At the time of my visit, Axel was milking 62 ewes, and getting around 45 litres of milk at each milking. The average Wooldrift ewe produces 375 litres in a lactation, but the best ewes can exceed 700 litres.
Milking continues until the average daily production drops below half a kilogram, sometime between October and the beginning of December. Axel cuts back on the grain toward the end of lactation, and dries ewes off in groups as their individual production drops.
The frozen milk is sold to more than one cheese processor. Prices paid for sheep milk in Ontario range from $1.40 to $ 2.20 per litre, with most being around $1.80. Some processors have started to pay more for winter milk, when supplies are usually low.
Chris and Axel buy back some of the cheese made from their milk and sell it on the farm, as well as through natural food stores and farmers’ markets. They carry pecorino (a semi-hard Italian-style cheese), a spiced feta and a delicious sheep’s milk yogourt.
Chris and Axel farm 78 acres, 35 of which are in pasture. The pasture is split into six paddocks that can be further subdivided with electric fence. Rotating the pastures is the only method of worm control they can use when the ewes are milking. Chris monitors fecal egg counts and treats individual animals only if necessary, then withholds their milk. The ewes get wormed in the fall after they are dried off.
Chris and Axel measure and record everything. In addition to the comprehensive lambing records kept by many breeders, they record the total production at each milking, as well as the minimum and maximum temperature of the walk-in freezer each day. The individual milk production of each ewe is measured monthly, and samples sent to the provincial Dairy Herd Improvement lab for somatic cell counts and fat and protein levels.
Chris has been using EweByte software since it was created in the early 1990’s. When a sheep dairy module was added several years ago, Chris keyed in over 10 years of historical milk production data, all the way back to 1995. The flock is also enrolled on GenOvis (formerly the Sheep Flock Improvement Program in Ontario). Chris says the record keeping pays off when selecting their own replacements, as well as for selling breeding stock.
Although there is lots of work to be done on the farm, there isn’t enough income for both Chris and Axel to do it full time. Chris enrolled in vet school at the University of Guelph in 1995 and completed her DVM in 1999. She is a co-owner of Markdale Veterinary Services, and works there as one of three large animal vets. She is also the owner of SR Genetics, which offers laparoscopic AI and embryo transfer services to sheep and goat breeders across Canada.
But Chris and Axel were health conscious long before she became a vet. They started testing for Maedi-visna in 1989, and joined the provincial program when it started in 2000. Chris is considering testing their herd sires for genetic resistance to the disease, using a new test available in the US. They are also enrolled in the national Voluntary Scrapie Flock Certification Program and are now Scrapie Certified.
The biggest health problem with the East Friesians is pneumonia in the lambs, particularly when the animals are housed in the bank barn. They are vigilant about detecting and treating it when it occurs, and try to select against it. They used to have problems with coccidiosis in lambs when the yards were wet, but find that drenching the lambs with Baycox at weaning works well to prevent it.
After weaning, the lambs get moved to the tunnel barn, where they are fed a mix of corn and other grains, but also have access to pasture. Most of the ram lambs, plus the bottom 25% of the ewe lambs, are sold whole as freezer lambs or converted into individual cuts and sausage. The rest are sold as breeding stock or retained as replacements.
I asked Chris and Axel about the changes they have seen in the dairy sheep industry since they got started.
Chris says there is greater awareness of milking sheep now. When their sons (Lucas, 28, and Michael, 26) were little, one of them told a teacher that his parents were milking sheep and the teacher ‘corrected’ him, telling him that people milked goats, not sheep.
They’re not the only ones milking sheep any more. There are now more than 50 farmers milking sheep in Ontario, producing 1.5 million litres of sheep milk per year. There are also more processors buying fresh and frozen sheep milk and making it into more types of cheese, more of which is consumed locally.
Helping to develop an industry means giving your time. Chris is president of the Small Ruminants Veterinarians of Ontario, and she and Axel were instrumental in founding the Ontario Dairy Sheep Association. In 2009, they won the Premier’s Award for Agri-Food Innovation Excellence for ‘shepherding the growth of the sheep milk industry in Ontario’.
They have also been recognized internationally. At the 2013 North American Dairy Sheep Symposium, Axel received the William J Boylan Distinguished Service Award, for his ‘truly significant contributions to the growth of the dairy sheep industry in North America’, including his work in pioneering dairy sheep production, developing East Friesian genetics and organizing the very first dairy sheep meetings in North America.