By Lisa Boonstoppel-Pot
Still farming and raising dairy sheep in their retirement, Eric and Elisabeth Bzikot of Conn have now written a book about sheep dairying for the next generation of those who “love their woolies”.
Called A Practical Guide to Sheep Dairying, the 95-page self-published book was designed “for first-time, prospective producers without pockets bulging with dollars,” says Eric, whom I met in the laneway hooking up a trailer in the cold of winter. This is a man who has worked hard his entire life and is still at it, though the pair did give up actually milking sheep some years ago. Now, they raise about 75 sheep in a former horse barn turned sheep barn.
The pair is also active in Bestbaa Dairy Ltd., in Fergus, a business they started to market sheep milk products which is now owned and operated by their son, Peter Bzikot.
“We started thinking about writing a book after we stopped milking,” says Elisabeth from the warmth of their farmhouse kitchen. “Then it took two winters to write, review and change.”
The book includes information on what you need to get started, sheep breeds, feeding and management, lambing, weaning, milking and common diseases and ailments.
“Having received little advice when we first began milking and having learned most of our lessons through hard experience, we are writing this book to give practical advice to sheep dairy farmers to help them avoid problems in this field of farming,” reads the introduction.
Indeed, the pair had a circuitous and trial-ridden journey through sheep farming, along with joys and successes. A foray into their past reveals the pair were brought up in England, before moving to Manitoba in 1984 where they raised beef cattle and grew grains for 14 years. They struggled through low farm prices, relying heavily on Elisabeth’s income as a teacher. In 1998, they decided to try their luck in Ontario, moving to Conn to become dairy sheep farmers with a sideline of wild boar. The farm they bought had been a horse farm so they converted the horse stalls to sheep pens and so it began.
The wild boar business did not thrive but of the 64 imported British Milk Sheep embryos they implanted into Columbia sheep, there were 27 live births. Of those, seven were females. These became the nucleus of their herd which grew to 250 ewes at the peak of their milking flock.
From the start, Eric and Elizabeth were active in the industry and in marketing. They helped host the North American Dairy Sheep Symposium three times and Elisabeth was a popular speaker in the sheep industry.
On the farm, they milked for nine years in total but discovered early on that the market for sheep milk dissipated. That led to formation of a dairy cooperative with a handful of other dairy sheep producers called Ewenity Dairy Cooperative. When it dissolved, they established BestBaa Dairy in 2003, a name shorted from their original farm name: Best Boar and Baa Farm.
The idea was to create sheep milk products to use their own milk and that of other producers to make more money selling value-added products. Sheep milk is known for its creamy texture and it also freezes well because of its high-solids contents. This allows dairy sheep producers to produce milk over the summer, store it, then create products over the fall and winter seasons.
Best Baa made cheeses, including cream cheese, feta, a gouda called ‘Eweda’, a camembert called ‘ramembert and two raw milk firm cheeses labeled ‘Ewe de cru’ and ‘Mouton rouge’.
Eric and Elizabeth were busy not only caring for sheep, milking sheep and shipping milk to the dairy, but also staying on top of quality control, labelling and marketing. They traveled to farmers’ markets, hosted taste-testing events in grocery stores and were able to get their products in local grocery stores as well as Whole Foods and the The Big Carrot health food store.
It was a busy time. When stores decided to go through a distributor, it eased their workload but the Bzikots say it was actually a negative for their business. “We lost the relationship with the buyers and our product sales dropped by a third without the personal contact,” remembers Eric.
Best Baa, however, went on to be a success, providing a living for their son Peter. Eric and Elisabeth are regular helpers delivering milk from other producers. No longer milking themselves (Eric forced the sale of the milking parlour so Elisabeth couldn’t milk again!), they still raise British Milk Sheep, selling breeding stock and lambs to market.
“It’s worked okay for us,” says Eric. “We were able to make a living but it wasn’t at the level of financing a $1,000,000 new barn!” Elisabeth said “milking sheep is not a money spinner – you get paid for your labour. But one of the advantages is that children can help and not get hurt.”
Both, at different points in their conversation, Eric and Elisabeth would say “we love our woolies”. It’s clear milking and raising sheep has been a valued portion of their life. Eric had always been a farmer – he used to pull the sheep “out of the brambles” when he was a boy in England. When they moved to Ontario, Elisabeth decided to farm alongside him full-time. Together, they learned what it takes to raise dairy sheep, which “is as different from that of meat sheep as beef cattle is from cow dairying.”
Dairy sheep are considered dual-purpose animals. They tend to be finer and larger than meat sheep, typically cycling between August and February, and can lamb between January and June. “The highest lactation yield is obtained if you lamb your ewes in January/early February, they can then milk into October milking 250 to 300 days,” states Chapter 4 on lambing.
There is much to be learned from their guide in addition to speaking to the pair. Humble and articulate, the pair are genuinely flummoxed that I was amazed at their fortitude. Most couples their age are keen to retire to a smaller house in town but the pair are not convinced. They like being home, taking care of their sheep, gardening and writing! “I’d rather do stuff than sit down and get fat,” declares Eric. As Elisabeth sees it, there isn’t a better alternative and they hope one of their three children will consider taking over the farm one day. Maybe not to milk sheep, but to hang on to their rural heritage.
In the meantime, it’s business as usual for the Bzikots with morning and evening chores, and sharing their wisdom by word and paper. Copies of A Practical Guide to Sheep Dairying can be found at the North Huron Publishing bookstore on Queen street in Blyth. ◊