Farmstead Cheese and Animal Husbandry on a Grade A Sheep Dairy
Eight miles south of Clinton, WA on Whidbey Island, 17 farm walk attendees were present for a farm walk at Glendale Shepherd, a Grade A sheep dairy. Attendees included farmers, community members, and various resource people including Karen Bishop (Whidbey Island Conservation District) Sarah Bergquist (Island County 4H Coordinator), and Joan Devries (Skagit County Livestock Advisor). Lynn and Stan Swanson along with their son, Erik, and four interns led the walk.
The walk began inside the lamb rearing shed, where this season 103 lambs were looked after by the Swansons and their interns. Whitney, a second year intern employee of Glendale, explained to us the process of lamb rearing at the farm. Glendale practices artificial rearing in which the lambs are taken away from their mothers within three days after birth. Once they are removed from their mothers, the lambs are placed in the rearing shed, where they receive ear tags, vaccinations, and are bottle fed for the first 24 hours. Male lambs are castrated within the first couple days using a surgical method which Lynn believes reduces the pain for the lamb and the likelihood of infection. The shed allows the Glendale staff to keep a close eye on the well-being of every lamb. They milk out the colostrums from a ewe that has lambed and mix it with milk replacer. After bottle-feeding, lambs are fed milk replacer through 5 gallon buckets that are retrofitted with plastic teats at varying heights. The lambs are introduced grain and hay within the first week to get them acquainted with those food sources. After thirty days the lambs are weaned and if they weigh in as at least 30 pounds, they are put out to pasture and fed “solid” food – grain and hay.
Lambing season is an important time at Glendale as it is the beginning of the milking season for the farm. This year, the first lamb was born on January 25th and the last was born on March 10th. Sheep lactate for 7-9 months with the first 30 days after they give birth providing the most milk. In fact this first month of milking provides Glendale with one-third of the milk used to make their cheese products. The gestation period for ewes is 5 months: new lambing ewes are given grain mix with supplements during this time and all ewes receive alfalfa hay. In total, Glendale had 51 lambing ewes produce 103 lambs. Lynn says they will keep about 20 ewe lambs as replacement milkers to be bred this fall. The rest are butchered for Glendale’s lamb products.
After visiting the lamb rearing shed, Stan walked the group over to the pig pen where they have 3 pigs that act as part of their whey disposal. (Whey is a by-product of the cheese making process.) The pigs eat 6-7 buckets of whey a day and Stan also gives extra whey to a local farm that uses it to feed their pigs.
Stan then walked us through the forested area of their property to show us the saw mill, a historical aspect of the Swanson farm that is still in use as they manage the forest resources of their property. Stan uses much of the timber he and his brother mill in constructing many of the buildings and animal enclosures on the farm and the ingenious feeder trucks for the sheep. These moveable feeders – which Stan calls the “taco trucks” because the sides flip up to reveal the feed troughs, much like a food truck flips up to sell tacos – are moved with the lambs as they are moved from pasture to pasture. We got to see one of these “taco trucks” in action in the lamb pasture where Stan fed the lambs some grain and hay (which quickly subsided their incessant bleating). The lambs are processed for meat through the Puget Sound Meat Producers Cooperative and Minder Meat, both of which are USDA approved facilities and are amenable to being inspected for Glendale’s Animal Welfare Approved certification.
Stan and Lynn explained that the production of the lambs for meat pays for the feed needs of their entire operation, which accounts for 50% of their total operating costs – an advantage for the success of their operation. They utilize a fresh ram every year on their ewes, but Lynn would like to experiment with breeding ewes with a ram that has traits specific for meat production to produce lambs they know will go to slaughter. The other ewes would then be bred with a different ram for the purpose of producing replacement milkers with strong traits for milk production.
After visiting the lamb pasture, the group walked to the dairy barn where Erik explained the process of milking the 51 ewes. They milk the sheep twice a day: in the morning from 7am to about 10am, and then again at around 5pm to about 7pm. The basic process is to herd the sheep into a pen outside the barn, bring in four at a time onto a galvanized stanchion, feed the ewes, sanitize them, and then place the milkers on them. They get approximately 100 gallons of milk per week, which comes out to about 2 gallons a week per sheep. The milk is pumped into stainless steel containers which are sanitized and chilled, then transported to the cheese-making room which is in a building located apart from the dairy barn and pastures.
From the dairy barn we watched as Stan demonstrated moving the ewes from one pasture to the next. The Glendale pastures are composed of existing grasses from the pasture though they have over-seeded with a grass and legume mix in the past. They feed the ewes alfalfa hay which they are able to source from a farm in Coupeville, also on Whidbey.
After seeing the sheep and pastures we walked to the building that houses the cheese-making and cheese-aging rooms. For reasons of sanitation we were not able to go into these rooms but Lynn provided pictures that displayed the set-up quite well. The cheese making room has a 55 gallon pasteurizer, which they were able to purchase through a Farm Service Agency (FSA) loan, and a 35 gallon holding tank specifically for raw milk. When the milk is brought up from the dairy barn, the milk cans are first bleached and then passed through a pass-through window that connects directly into the cheese room. This is a measure to protect against any cross-contamination. Lynn then handles the making of the cheese and yogurt in the cheese room, and then cheese/yogurt is moved to the aging room. From the aging room the products are moved to a room for packaging and storage. The uni-directional flow of the cheese making process controls for contamination. Glendale Shepherd produces a variety of hard, aged cheeses, yogurt, and recently lebneh a soft yogurt based cheese.
At the end of the walk, Lynn summed up the entire process of their operation. What began as an endeavor to milk sheep simply for her own dietary restrictions led Lynn to milking sheep and making cheese to sell to others. While at first blush selling cheese seems simple enough, Lynn made everyone understand the rigorous record keeping she maintains to ensure the sustainability of their farm and the safety and quality of their product. Her motto is “to be on the right side of the issues” so she is not surprised by a change in protocols or food safety laws. For instance, though a full Hazard Analysis & Critical Control Points (HACCP) is not required at this time by the FDA, Lynn has taken four classes on HACCP and has developed an extensive plan. Lynn jokes the plan can be measured in inches since it creates quite a thick binder of papers.
Karen Bishop of the Whidbey Island Conservation District explained the process of developing a nutrient management plan for livestock operations. She helped Lynn and Stan create their plan. This document is used to help farmers realize what resources need to be protected on their property and what amount of livestock or crops their property can environmentally sustain. This process helps the farmer be realistic about their production potential and provides a basis for their business plan. It also helps farmers address conservation issues, which is necessary in order for dairies – such as Glendale – to get their Grade ‘A’ permit.
We ended the farm walk with a tasting of Glendale’s cheese and yogurt products. It was the perfect culmination of all the hard work we observed during the farm walk.
This project is supported in part by the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, USDA, Grant # 2012-49400-19575. For more resources and programs for beginning farmers and ranchers please visit www.Start2Farm.gov, a component of the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program.
Summary by Angela Anegon, Tilth Producers of Education Coordinator
Farm Walk Booklet: HERE