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Northland Sheep Dairy

A Collaboration With Nature

By Alan Harman

Overseas travel can more than broaden the mind—it can change career destinations. Maryrose Livingston knew she wanted to be a dairy farmer when as a nine-year-old she visited Ireland with her parents and saw a man milking a cow in County Cork.

Years later, still pursuing her dairy farming dream, Livingston and husband Donn Hewes traveled to Europe on a cheese-making research expedition.

As part of their hunt for knowledge they spent two months working for Mary Holbrook in Timsbury, England. Livingston recalls Holbrook was milking 200 ewes and 100 does and making really wonderful cheeses.

“I fell absolutely in love with the sheep there,” she says.

They had met pioneering dairy sheep farmers Karl and Jane North when they moved to New York as newlyweds in 1999 through the American Cheese Society and had visited the legendary Northland Sheep Dairy 30 miles east of Ithaca, New York, to get design ideas for their own cheesemaking facility.

At the time they owned a 90-acre farm where they planned a small, 100 percent grass-fed cow dairy.

The Norths had told them they were looking for a couple to go into partnership and eventually buy them out.

But Livingston and Hewes were still cow people and they “sort of laughed them off.”

England and Holbrook Farm changed all that.

“When Donn and I returned from that trip, we told Jane and Karl that we’d go into partnership with them if we could sell our farm, which we eventually did,” Livingston says.

After five years working with the Norths, they formally purchased the property in 2007.

“I haven’t been able to give dairy cows the time of day since I discovered sheep,” Livingston says. I am a complete convert, and I was known as someone who was really passionate about milking cows.”

She had started college at Michigan State University as a dairy science major, but dropped out after three years to follow her dream and become a herdsman on a dairy farm in Indiana. She moved to Washington State to finish college and worked as an environmental regulator to fund her farm dream.

Now Livingston is the shepherdess and cheesemaker, while Hewes works the farm with his team of draft horses and mules.

Donn Hewes with his team.

The Operation

The Northland farm covers 57 acres, but the couple also has a long-standing lease on 40 acres adjacent to them and a new “free lease” on 30 acres directly across the road.

“We are considering moving some of the grazing animals to other fields owned by some of our close neighbors,” Hewes says. “Grazing the animals on some of these little-used fields helps renovate those fields for future grazing or haymaking, and gives us more flexibility if we run into a drought year.”

What makes the farm really unusual is that draft horses and mules still rule and have not been deposed by tractors and other petroleum powered farm machinery.

The milking flock is typically about 40 ewes, although they want to get the numbers into the 45—50 range in the near future.

“We raise all of our lambs and finish them for direct retail meat sales,” Livingston says.

The parlor holds six sheep on the milking platform.

“We milk with two claws, so we milk 2-2-2, then send the row out for the next six animals to come in,” Livingston says.

“We milk mechanically with a 2.5 horsepower motor running our refurbished vacuum pump. We have a pulsator on our five-gallon milking bucket, into which both claws run. Our pulsation runs at 120 pulses a minute and a 50:50 milk-to-rest ratio.”

They start the season milking twice a day on an interval of 10.5 hours and 13.5 hours.

“Late in the season, we go to once a day milking until the animals dry off,” Livingston says.

The sheep are crossbred—or “mutts,” as Livingston affectionately calls them. They are predominantly Dorset-by-Texel-by-East Friesian crosses. There is also one purebred Icelandic ewe, one ewe with some Black Welsh Mountain and a young ram that is an Icelandic-by-Romney cross.

The number of grazing acres for the sheep varies, depending on the grass growth that year.

“Typically we devote 20 acres to the milking flock and 20 acres to the lamb flock, although that is not hard and fast,” Hewes says. “We have tried to build more flexibility into our grazing and haymaking operations so we never get caught short in a drought year (or an extremely rainy year).”

The pastures are all mixed grasses and legumes.

The couple like to frost seed Birdsfoot trefoil and some clover, usually white.

“We have done some test plots growing mangels for the animals in the winter, and some grazing brassicas to extend our fall grazing,” Hewes says. “These have all been very small scale trials and not something we have fully implemented.

“Our main feeding philosophy is that the sheep are 100 percent grass-fed, both the milking flock and the lamb (meat) flock. We have experimented with growing some small grains for our own consumption—we grew wheat last year—and we’d like to grow some barley to feed the pigs we raise for ourselves each year.

“The horses and mules typically only eat pasture and hay as well, although they will sometimes get a handful of grain if we are feeding them some type of nutritional supplement.”

Maryrose Livingston milking her flock.

Getting It All Done

The farm is usually a two-person operation.

“We do, however, hire a seasonal apprentice,” Livingston says. “Donn loves to teach people how to drive horses and mules, and we usually need one more set of hands during haymaking season.

“There are those ‘perfect storm’ types of days in the summer when the sheep need to be milked, the hay needs to be baled, and the hay wagons unloaded into the hay mow all at the same time. Our seasonal apprentices are a great help during those times.

“I also love teaching people about sheep. I think they are just the most fun animals to be around. I don’t enjoy teaching cheesemaking, but I can talk your ear off about grazing and milking.”

Since they bought the farm there have been some changes.

“I have always been passionate about 100 percent grass-fed dairy, so we completed transitioning the flock to that status,” Livingston says. “We also love raising lambs, so we started keeping all of the lambs, rather than selling them off to a feeder, and raising and marketing 100 percent grass-fed lambs.

Hewes decided to make all of their hay rather than buying in the majority, so the couple spends a lot of their time making hay with draft horses and mules.

“I also wanted to produce ‘natural rind’ cheeses, so we built a cheese cave and began cave-aging all of our cheeses,” Livingston says. “We also began raising pigs and poultry (ducks) for home

consumption. The pigs are wonderful converters of our whey and produce really tasty, inexpensive pork because of that great feed source.

“We also institutionalized a yearly apprentice program here at the farm, which has given some great folks a good start for their farming careers.”

Managing the grass supply with Electronet®.

Quality, Health & Safety

The farm is not certified organic, but a progressive organization, the Northeast Organic Farming Association—New York, has an alternative to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s organic certification.

“We are signatory to what’s called the Farmer’s Pledge,” Livingston says. “We promise to use organic production methods in our fields and animals, and additionally, we pledge to use practices that promote a more sustainable future, ecologically and economically.”

Because the farm direct-markets all of its products, the farmers don’t see any point in USDA putting a label on the food so consumers know what they’re buying.

“They can just ask me,” Livingston says. “I’m standing right in front of them at the farmers’ market.”

She says so many of the USDA standards for certified organic food are geared toward making it easier for “corporate organic” to be certified.

“Organic farming should be about sustainability, integrity of the farm ecosystem, and right livelihood, not about marketing labels,” she says.

The couple collects data about lamb birth weights and milk production of each of the ewes as an indicator of the health of the flock.

“We do assess animal performance, particularly milk production per ewe,” Livingston says. “The milk production statistics that I collect help me decide which ewe lambs I want to keep for the milking flock, but also which ewes I want to breed to our dairy ram, rather than our meat/fiber ram.

“I don’t use the milk production data to compare ourselves to other sheep dairies, because there are hardly any other farms that are doing 100 percent grass-fed with cross-bred animals. Comparisons to other sheep dairies wouldn’t really tell me anything.”

The farm has few, if any, predator problems.

“We are surrounded by coyotes and foxes, our ducks have unfortunately fallen victim, but the sheep have not been affected,” Livingston says. “I may have lost one yearling ram a number of years ago to a coyote, but I consider it my fault: I put three rams out in the pasture in early spring to make some room in the barn—they were in a large five to six-acre field with just our perimeter fence, no Electronet® . That was just too low a stocking density, without the added protection of the Electronet®.”

(Electronet® is a registered product of Premier1. See page 68.—Editor.)

The milking and lamb flocks are on pasture 24 hours a day during the growing season, and they have never had a problem.

“I think there are a number of reasons,” Livingston says. “The animals are out on pasture when food sources are abundant; the animals live in the barnyard or near the barns during the winter season; the animals move at least once a day, and usually twice a day; we put bells on some of the ewes, which produces an erratic sound. And we always use Electronet® for fencing.”


Sheep Are Profitable Every Day

The farm sells or uses everything from one end of the sheep to the other.

The ewes give birth in mid-April and Livingston begins making cheese in late May, continuing production until the animals are dried off in late October.

The sheep are fed hay during the winter months when they are not lactating.

“We make cheese approximately every other day throughout the season, and our cheeses are aged in our cheese cave for six months to two years where they develop a natural rind,” Livingston says.

“Our cheeses are really made by hand, in small batches. They are all raw milk cheeses, and I try ‘not to get in the way of the milk.’ I use very gentle methods in cheesemaking—I don’t over agitate, over heat or over press. Our milk is really just phenomenal, and I want it to shine through in the flavor profile of the cheese.”

“We’re pretty settled on our products, although I continue to refine one of our newer cheeses—a soft cheese, aged a minimum of 60 days, that is coagulated with cardoon flowers that we grow here. It is a Spanish style cheese, and I traveled to Spain a couple of years ago to learn how to make it.”

All the cheeses sell for $20 a pound:

• Bergère Bleue: A creamy, roquefort-style blue cheese with a light blue vein. Aged 4-12 months.

• Folie Bergère: A firm, nutty washed curd sheep cheese with a natural rind. Aged 12-15 months.

• Tomme Bergère: A rustic, Alpine-style sharp cheese with a natural rind. Aged 4-12 months.

• Bergerino: An Italian-style hard cheese with a natural rind. Aged 12-24 months.

• Cardonbert: A soft sheep cheese in the Portuguese or Spanish style, coagulated with home-grown cardoon flowers. Aged 2-4 months.

The lambs are weaned at one month of age, or when they reach a minimum of 30 pounds and show vigor, and become “the lamb flock,” which also includes the yearling ewes.

“The milking flock is just that—the ewes that go through the parlor,” Livingston says. “Then we always have the ‘bachelor flock’ of rams.”

The couple says they pretty much select only for milk production with their breeding program.

“That trait will encompass the other values I’m aiming for—health and vigor on a 100 percent grass-fed diet,” Livingston says.

As well as cheese and meat, they have developed a very good market for offal.

“I don’t get the brains back, they are so seldom requested, but we have quite a market for liver, heart, tongue and kidney,” Livingston says.

“I find that the organs that don’t sell during the regular marketing season I can sell at a deep discount before my next butchering season to people for their pets. They are great food for pets and it helps me get the freezers cleared out before the next butchering season.”

They sell 99 percent of their products at the Ithaca Farmers’ Market on Saturdays, April through December.

“I occasionally sell from the farm, but only by appointment,” Livingston says. “We used to have a number of good wholesale accounts, but our local retail sales are so strong, that we just don’t do any wholesale anymore.

“I shear the flock and send our wool to a mill and get yarn made. The yarn really enhances our farmers’ market stall. I also have our sheepskins tanned and sell those at our stall, too.”

Both sheep and horse manures are composted with garden bedding to make fertilizer for the farm’s fields and gardens.

Livingston loads hay as Hewes works the team.

Flock Health; Public Health

Livingston says they don’t sell any live animals as the flock has been Ovine Progressive Pneumonia (OPP) positive “forever, and although we have learned to live with it, I don’t want anyone else to have to do so.”

It is estimated more than 50 percent of the flocks in the U.S. are infected with OPP, with the number of sheep infected within a positive flock anywhere between one percent and 70 percent. There is no treatment for OPP, but the vast majority of infected sheep will never show respiratory disease or a wasting syndrome.

In these days of global disease and virus concerns the couple is notoriously picky about farm tours.

“People tend to want to come during the nicest weather times, which is when we are at our busiest,” Livingston says. “I also don’t want to run a petting zoo—this is a working farm, so you’re not always going to be able to see or be close to the animals. So we accept visitors on our terms.”

The farm is at 1,500 feet elevation and tends to be windier and colder than other places nearby.

“Our coldest days here are usually just below zero, and old man winter typically will lay in a base of snow and we don’t see bare fields until sometime in March or April,” Livingston says. “But it is a little piece of heaven in the summer.”

They agree the use of horse and mule power rather than modern farm equipment means it takes them longer, with more people, to produce their hay.

“We don’t really ‘eschew’ the use of modern machinery per se, but we do what we love,” Hewes says.

Livingston says while they have philosophical and political underpinnings to their farming style, they pretty much farm this way because they love every minute of it.

“If Donn had to sit around on a tractor, he would be miserable and have a sore back from the tractor seat,” she says. “If my animals were confined in a barn, I would be fat and miserable. We both love being out in the fields with the animals.

“We work hard to make our farm operate with minimal outside inputs and to conserve and recycle nutrients on the farm. We are constantly striving to reduce our use of fossil fuels and energy-intensive manufactured products.”

The sheep are handled using low-stress management techniques.

“We allow our pastures to support diverse forages to provide the healthiest and most natural diet for our sheep. We believe that our farm can only support a certain number of animals and we maintain a healthy, limited stocking rate. This allows us to provide adequate nutrition, space, health care, and attention to the animals.”

The couple also pays special attention to management techniques that reduce or eliminate health challenges to their animals so they don’t require the use of chemicals or antibiotics to maintain good health.

Springtime at Northland.

Community Activities

“While our closely-held beliefs in sustainable farming and living drive many of our farm operations, we have come to believe that we need to begin thinking beyond those views and to make our farm a tool of social, economic, and food justice,” Livingston says.

“We believe that by providing healthy, locally-produced food to our immediate community we will create a stronger civic fabric where it is most needed.”

Previous owners Karl and Jane North still live in their home on the farm, in which they hold a “life estate.” They garden and are involved in teaching and outreach activities.

The new owners are also active in area outreach programs.

“We are really fortunate to be working as mentors to other young or beginning farmers,” Livingston says. “We are a mentor farm for the New Farmer Training Program, which is administered by the Groundswell Center for Local Food and Farming.

“We are also a CRAFT (Collaborative Regional Alliance for Farmer Training) mentor farm, also administered through Groundswell, wherein we teach other area farm apprentices about sheep, grass-fed dairying, and draft animals.

“We get to teach a class or two for the Summer Practicum in Sustainable Farming & Local Food Systems (Groundswell again!). We are very much involved in teaching at the annual winter conference put on by the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York (NOFA-NY).

“I am vice president of the Board of Directors of NOFA-NY, and Donn is on the board of directors of a new, vibrant farmers’ market near us, the Homer Farmers’ Market. Donn is also planning to put on a program this summer through NOFA-NY on using draft animal power on vegetable farms.”

Livingston says she is finding more and more people are getting interested in sheep dairying.

“I’m always encouraging folks who are interested to start developing a line of hair dairy sheep,” she says. “Some of the hair breeds out there are really great—Dorpers and Katahdins, for example. It wouldn’t take much to incorporate some great dairy genetics in a hair sheep, and I think more people would be likely to go into sheep dairying if they didn’t have to worry about the ‘wool problem’.”

In the summer the couple can be working 17-hours a day between twice-daily milking, cheesemaking, grazing chores and haymaking. In the winter, the animals are dry, housed in the barnyard and being fed hay.

“Our winter workday is only about four hours of active chores, if that,” Livingston says. “Winter is when we plan a vacation because it’s much easier to find a farm sitter and get away for a bit.

“We love the swing of the seasons over the course of the year. I have nothing but admiration for cow dairy farmers who milk every day, year in and year out, but I much prefer the rhythm of the seasonal, small ruminant dairy.”

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