By Tim King
Starting an on-farm sheep dairy from scratch is a daunting challenge but it can be done: Greg and Ana Kelly, of Dayspring Dairy near Gallant, Alabama, are proof of it.
Neither Greg nor Ana had any farming experience before they decided to become shepherds and cheesemakers. Greg’s experience as an information technology manager certainly had not prepared him for his new career.
“Neither of us had any previous experience aside from the goat in my grandfather’s back yard,” Greg said. “We were both city kids, so we had a very steep learning curve, which we filled with a lot of traveling to learn, classes and reading.”
Ana’s years of work as a chef and food stylist has helped her as the cheese maker at Dayspring and her hobby was likely the seed that germinated into their family’s current business.
“Years before we dreamed of starting a farm I regularly made yogurt and yogurt cheese for the family,” she said. “We then started making mozzarella.”
Once the Kellys decided to become cheese makers and livestock managers they faced two questions: Where would their farm be and what species of livestock would provide milk for their cheese?
To answer the last question the Kellys did some market research. “Looking around our area we discovered that there are already a number of cow and goat cheese operations,” Greg said. “Entering an already mature market and competing with established businesses was not a recipe for success. When we finally did visit a sheep dairy, we both knew that was what we wanted. We absolutely loved the cheese and the animals.”
But to continue their newly discovered love of dairy sheep the Kellys needed land with grass. Preferably low-cost land, since they had established a budget for themselves. The hilly land in northeastern Alabama’s piedmont region, near unincorporated Gallant and not far from Birmingham, was ideal.
“Our main requirement was finding good pasture land that would be ready for sheep,” Greg said. “We actually had very little choice, due to a limited budget. And were thrilled to find this farm within our budget.”
Dairying with Friesian Crosses on Gulf Coast Native Sheep
But of course there was a problem: That rich grassy land in the southern U.S. was not a good location to raise North America’s most productive dairy breed.
East Friesian sheep, with their origins in cool Northern Germany, do well on grass, but aren’t genetically prepared to handle the heat and parasites of the southern United States. And worming the East Friesians was not an option: “An animal on wormers can’t be milked,” Greg says.
But, for the last three hundred years, southern shepherds have been developing a breed that is up to the challenge of the region’s hot and humid climate: The Native Gulf Coast Sheep, or Piney Woods Sheep, can take all the parasites the southern U.S. can throw at them.
So Greg and Ana chose to combine East Friesian’s high production genetics with the parasite and foot rot resistance of Native Gulf Coast Sheep.
“We got our first small flock of Gulf Coast ewes from a farm near Athens, Georgia,” Greg said. “We bred them to a Friesian ram we bought from the first sheep dairy we visited in Tennessee. They are considered to be ‘milky,’ so mixing them with the Friesians does lessen the milk volume, but not as much as would be expected. Given the parasite loads in the deep south it’s a strategy that has worked for us. Last season and this season to date, we have not used any chemical wormers on any of our adult sheep and very little on the lambs.”
Greg says the ram lambs are sold readily to various ethnic customers.
Gulf Coast Sheep, like East Friesians, do well on a largely forage diet. Dayspring farm is able to keep its sheep on pasture for ten months of the year. High quality alfalfa is purchased to get the flock through the other two months.
“We do provide a custom made feed to the ewes during milking, to make certain they have enough calories to produce their maximum amount of milk and stay healthy,” Greg said.
Setting Up A Dairy Operation
Greg learned a lot about shepherding from Tennessee shepherd and cheese maker Sheri Palko. He also took classes at the Sheep Dairy School in Spooner, Wisconsin.
“The school was absolutely fantastic and really prepared me to run a dairy and care for the animals. Sadly, it’s no longer being offered,” he said.
Ana found mentors and organized classes to be helpful as well.
“Once we landed on starting a cheese business in earnest, I attended cheese making courses in Kentucky and Vermont,” she said. “I also worked alongside two southern cheese makers for mentoring.”
Ana says that learning to make cheese with cows milk is helpful but that there are differences between cow and sheep milk.
“The cheese making classes I took focused on cow’s milk since it is so readily available,” she said. “There are slight changes that have to be made when adapting a cow cheese recipe to work with sheep milk. Also, there are certain cheeses, such as mozzarella-string cheese, that don’t work with sheep milk due to the high protein content that interferes with a stretchable curd formation.”
As Ana and Greg were learning the art and craft of their new skills they also had to design buildings to house the milking parlor, the cheese making operation, lambing facilities and other aspects of their new business. Greg said that the biggest expense they faced when starting their business was the steel building.
“But it’s hard to beat the durability and flexibility of this building,” he said.
Greg challenged himself by doing most of the construction work himself.
“I grew up doing construction and carpentry type work with my dad and grandfather, but never having built something of this magnitude forced me to stretch my skill-set,” he said. “If you know where to look, you can see my mistakes. Rest assured I don’t point them out.”
Greg, who is responsible for milking duties on the farm, designed a double sided pit milking parlor as part of the multi-purpose building.
“Looking at pictures and notes from our travels and classes I sat down and drew one up,” he said. “The parlor is able to accommodate twenty-four sheep at a time. I knew we would have to start with bucket milkers, but eventually we would move to a pipeline system, so I designed it to allow that later on.”
Because a lot of small cow dairies have gone out of business in recent decades there is a lot of stainless steel milking gear available, Greg says.
“I was eventually able to purchase a whole pipeline system intended for cows including ‘Clean in Place’ (CIP) 7.5 horsepower vacuum pump, all of the stainless pipe, sinks and a host of fittings for only $2000,” he said. “I did have to drive to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to get it but it was well worth it. Adapting it to sheep was relatively simple with replacement claws and an updated pulsator system.”
Greg is primarily responsible for milking and livestock management at Dayspring Dairy. He says that milking, from prep to clean-up, takes about three hours.
Cheese Biz Strategies
Ana is in charge of cheese making. She says that she had a number of objectives in mind when they chose which cheeses to market.
“We wanted cheeses that would have broad appeal, be relatively easy to make with minimal labor, and have exceptional shelf life and storability,” she said. “Our fresh cheeses are pasteurized, which allows us to sell them right away for a rapid revenue stream. We do a few select aged cheeses from raw milk that have to be aged for a minimum of sixty days. But there again, they are simpler to make and can age for over a year.”
The fresh cheeses that Ana makes include Fresca spreadable cheese, Halloumi and Feta.
Halloumi is a unique cheese because it doesn’t melt. When it’s sautéed, grilled or fried, it forms a crisp, golden brown crust.
The three types of aged cheese that Ana makes are a Spanish cheese called Manchego and two types of Gouda, including one with truffles.
Ana’s previous work, as a food stylist, was helpful in creating the attractive product photos on the Dayspring website.
The Kellys sell their cheese at farmers markets in Birmingham, Huntsville and Atlanta, as well as at festivals, online at their website and from their farm store. Their farm store is part of their farm tourism enterprise.
“We really enjoy visitors to the farm. It’s a pleasure to see the reactions they have to seeing sheep and how everything is produced,” Greg said.
Farm visitors—everything from school children to groups of senior citizens—learn not only about cheese making but also about the making of Dayspring’s unique caramel, Dulce de Leche.
“My father is Colombian and I lived for many years in South America,” Ana said. “Dulce de Leche style caramels are basically the peanut butter of South America. It’s everywhere and every country makes different styles. Greg was the one that came up with the idea of making ours from sheep milk. As far as we know, we are the only ones in the entire country making it from sheep milk. The caramel production has actually been more difficult and technical than cheese, but the trade-off is a shelf stable product that is in a totally different category than cheese and is simply delicious.”
Shelf stability is important because Dayspring is a seasonal dairy. There are a few months of each year when they aren’t producing milk or making cheese. Sales of the shelf stable Dulce de Leche to the local Whole Foods store—and through other markets—provide an income stream during that period. Greg says that the Kellys chose to be seasonal so as to keep their sanity.
“In our travels, I met a lot of dairymen and women who were year-round milkers,” he said. “Many hadn’t left their immediate area in years. If you’re making a living selling fluid milk, year round is a requirement. However, with cheese, we’re able to buffer those few months with sales of frozen soft cheese, caramel and aged cheese. So sales don’t stop. We just get a break from production and may squeeze a vacation in. This is also the time of year that we do major improvements or repairs that may not be possible while producing.”
You can find photos and videos of Dayspring Dairy products, as well as the milking parlor and the East Friesian-Gulf Coast crossbred sheep at their website, DayspringDairy.com.
You can also order the two varieties of sheep milk caramel or any of their aged or fresh cheeses at the same site. The dairy’s phone is 205-359-9955.
Originally published in the September/October 2017 issue of sheep! and regularly vetted for accuracy.