By Lisa Boonstoppel-Pot
Sheep farming is a family affair at Ewe-Nique Dairy owned by Mark and Rosena Martin and has grown with a new barn and cheese store so that each of their six children could have work on the family farm.
“Milking sheep is labour-intensive but family friendly,” says Rosena, before showing the cheese store, a separate room inside the new sheep barn. She then heads out to go quilting with her friends in the Mennonite community near Drayton in Wellington County. Daughter Geneva is home because she is responsible for the lambs while Connor is schooled at home and is in charge of the feeding.
Four other children — Kurtis, Kendra, Delmar and Heather — also have specific roles on the farm while also working off-farm or going to school.
There’s a lot going on at Mark Martin Dairy Sheep farm, as it is formally called. The new barn is something to see. I haven’t been in a new dairy sheep barn before and it looks much like a dairy cow barn but with smaller animals, of course. It’s very clean and since it’s lambing time, a large pen has been divided into many lambing pens filled with day-old lambs. They stay with the ewes for a day or two before being transferred to the heated lambing room. The little lambs are allowed to get a little hungry before being introduced to the nipple feeder. Some catch on easily and others, well, they need to get a little hungrier before they latch on. In the end, all the lambs soon adapt and wag their little tails at the feeding station.
Across from the lamb room is the parlour and further down the alleyway is the old barn where the dry ewes live until it’s time for lambing. This barn is steamy on a cold winter day with a herd of beef cattle in it as well. Turkeys are also raised on this farm as part of a wide-spread operation involving an additional partnership with Martin’s brothers, who share machinery.
The sheep, however, came about 11 years ago after discussions with Rosena’s sister’s family, who were also dairy sheep producers.” She said there was a need for more sheep milk in the market and we thought our experience with pigs would help,” said Martin. Both commodities require large numbers and similar record keeping in terms of breeding and production.
When the sheep arrived, the Martins discovered sheep were more friendly than pigs and would follow and connect with the family. Plus, sheep are much cleaner, lending themselves to a more beautiful work environment which is something that was appealing to the whole family.
Originally, the sheep were housed in the old cattle barn or hay shed but the family realized they wanted to expand this side of the farm business. Replacements were kept from the original 120 head of milking sheep that came from Alberta with the goal to reach 250 milking sheep, for a total herd number of around 400. “We feel at that point, we can make the dairy sheep operation a viable business for the next generation,” said Martin. Any larger, and the family would require additional labour.
This required more space and plans for a new barn were drawn. Martin admits he has a weakness for wood and incorporated it into the architecture, which has resulted in a simple but beautiful barn. The barn is based on the Wolfe design, which is actually a cow dairy barn model which was remodeled for sheep. Long pens with swinging gates make moving animals and cleaning pens easy. The sheep have to travel down an alleyway to reach the milking parlour and a feeding of pellets in the parlour has them running for their treat at the twice-a-day milkings.
The Martins milk two breeds of sheep — East Friesian and Lacaune which are crossbred as well. The top performing animals get artificially inseminated with semen from France.
The milk is sold by contract and the Martins are part of a larger circle of dairy sheep producers that have been shipping to Saputo Inc. for over 10 years now. A committee from this group meets with Saputo on a monthly basis to maintain a strong partnership and regulate future expansion of the sheep dairy within their group. They have a waiting list of farmers wanting to join the informal collective. Much of the sheep milk is made into yogurt, feta cheese and sheep cheese. Sheep milk is very creamy with a seven per cent milk fat content and 5.5 per cent protein content. “It’s naturally sweet,” said Martin, which makes up for lack of volume as sheep produce one to three litres of milk a day.
Sheep eat much the same diet as cattle with an emphasis on forages including a mineral supplement all mixed in the TMR. They do like to sort and they require fresh feed which is why Martin likes to keep his beef herd. “With the cattle, I can feed out of the silo faster and keep the feed fresh,” he said.
As the herd expanded and there was more milk, the family decided to market their own cheese brand under the Ewe-Nique label. They partner with Cleon Shantz, owner of the St. Clement’s Goat Dairy who hand-crafts cheese in small batches. The Martins then sell it at their own on-farm store as well as 30 different stores in southern Ontario. They market four varieties — white cheddar, orange cheddar, chive cheddar blend and a cheddar Italian blend.
“There’s a good response to the cheese. The only issue is getting people to taste the product for the first time. Many times they are apprehensive because they do not know what it is,” said Martin. The family wants to offer storefront samples but that is not feasible during a pandemic.
Ultimately, the family really enjoys both the product and the animals themselves. “Our goal is to make dairy sheep farming a profitable industry,” said Martin, while promoting their own sheep cheese brand. ◊