One of the most difficult things I had to do to get the dairy up and running was finding capital. “You want to milk what??!!” was the standard response from bankers. Even with a full business plan and financial statements along with a $160,000 grant from USDA, I had to finance the dairy with a home equity loan. It was frustrating but totally understandable. I hate being in debt but if I hadn’t borrowed so much money, I might have quit after the first year. So many challenges to overcome, but after five years, I feel like I’ve finally gotten over the hump and this thing is going to work!
When I drew up the plans for the dairy, I had resale and flexibility in mind. I don’t plan to stay here forever and if the next person didn’t want to milk sheep, the building could easily be converted to milk cows or be made into a shop. It cost a little more to build it that way but I think it was for the best. Also, I wanted a covered area for my working chute. I used parts and pieces of old metal feeders and grain bins to make a circular chute that I can handle the sheep in without any extra help. It makes vaccinating and sorting a breeze! No more wiring and nailing together wooden panels or working sheep out in the bad weather. Thankfully, my husband is a good welder. He put it all together for me.
The parlor is a New Zealand style swing with a high line. When I researched parlor types, I liked the idea of the high thru-put of the NZ parlors. I can milk 200 ewes per hour in my parlor. I don’t want to be stuck in the barn for much longer than that. There’s too much to do outside! Everything is manual: no automatic gates, milk meters or take-offs. I do have a CIP (clean in place) system but it is manual as well. There’s nothing worse than being in the middle of milking and having something break down. I’m not very mechanical so I needed it to be as simple as possible.
Originally, I was shipping my milk to a local creamery so I had a bulk tank on a trailer that could be backed into the milk house, left there to fill, then driven directly to the creamery every 3 days. When I decided to make cheese on the farm, I converted the milk house into the cheese room. Now the milk goes into 5 gallon buckets or bags and are set into the walk-in freezer or poured directly into the cheese vat as needed. The experts say sheep milk can be frozen for up to a year without affecting it too much but the shorter the freezing time, the better. I’ve noticed that the cheese yield decreases quickly after about 60 days in the freezer. I have plans in the works for making a new milk house and using a bulk tank again, hopefully in the next year or so.
There are a few things I would do differently: I’d make the door of the freezer large enough to fit a pallet through and I could use a lot more storage room. There never seems to be enough space for containers, supplies and extra cheese making equipment.
As for farm equipment, I do most of my work with draft horses so the equipment has to be ground driven. I am having a fore cart built that will have a hydraulic 3-point hitch so I can use small tractor equipment with the horses. I had a 65 hp tractor but it broke down last summer and I haven’t had the money to replace it. I’ve gotten along fine without it this year although I did borrow the neighbor’s tractor to corrugate with.
I plant about 1/3 of the 80 acres to annuals for grazing but since I do a mix of spring cereals, warm season annuals, and winter cereals, it spreads the work load out enough that I can get it done with the horses. If I had more acreage, I’d put up my own hay but for now I have to buy all the hay I feed. Luckily, with the mix of annuals I plant, I only need to feed hay to the lactating ewes and winter born lambs from January to March. The dry ewes can make it through the winter on stockpiled forage, the exception being the one winter we had several inches of snow that melted then froze quickly into a sheet of ice about 3 inches thick. The sheep couldn’t even stand up in the fields let alone dig for forage. I ended up feeding hay to them for about 3 weeks until we had thaw.
I couldn’t be without my electric netting fence. I have the top wire of the whole perimeter fence energized so that I can hook into it anywhere with the netting to make cross fences. The netting is probably the most important piece of “equipment” I have! It makes managing the pastures easy – but more on fencing in another blog.