The emergence of dairy sheep as one of the newest and most promising farming ventures in Wales is no accident.
A new sector driven forward by pioneering farmers from all parts of Wales keen to meet market demand and based on centuries of knowledge and tradition in sheep management, Farming Connect is here to help family farms to develop their dairy sheep enterprises.
This article aims to celebrate the achievements of the farmers Farming Connect has been fortunate enough to work with over the past five years.
With 10 farms in Wales milking sheep this year, there is understandably more interest in the sector from farmers looking to future-proof their family businesses, and those further along the food supply chain who seek to capitalize on the growing demand for sheep’s milk products.
Nutritionally, sheep’s milk contains healthier fats, more calcium, protein, energy, iron and vitamins than cow’s milk. Sheep’s milk is mostly A2, which means it contains much less A1 beta-casein protein, which is known to cause digestive discomfort.
A group of agribusinesses that originally came together through Agrisgôp facilitation support from Farming Connect in 2017, have teamed up with award-winning and internationally respected artisan cheesemaker Dr Carrie Rimes of Bethesda, in the North Country of Wales, to secure support and funding from EIP Wales in 2019.
The group behind the EIP Wales project wanted to better understand the impact of the following variables on the bacteriology and composition of sheep’s milk:
- Lactation stage.
- Breed, with an emphasis on pure Friesian, pure Lleyn and Friesland cross Lleyn ewes.
- Selenium feed supplement for sheep.
“As a supplier of sheep’s milk to Dr Carrie Rimes’ ‘Cosyn Cymru’ cheese business in Bethesda,” explained senior member and farmer Alan Jones of Chwilog near Pwllheli, “I felt that ‘there were major gaps in my understanding and the information available to me or any other farmer in my position, about what affects the quality of sheep’s milk when making cheese. dairy ewes have been confined to European regions other than the UK.
The group benefited from an in-depth literature review conducted by Farming Connect’s Knowledge Exchange Hub which helped them shape the project to make the most of the funding.
“With the advice of Dr Yoav Alony-Gilboa of Friars Moor Vets in Dorset, the specialist involved in the project, we have implemented new protocols to reduce our SCC score to improve the performance of our herd,” said Alan explained. “This included extreme actions such as the removal of high-scoring ewes from the dairy herd, and more operational adaptations such as better teat-wiping methods and improved knowledge of how to monitor and maintain good udder health I am in regular contact with most of the dairy sheep farmers in Wales, and we regularly compare our breeding with beef dairy – we are literally at the start of the journey with sheep farming in Wales , and the room for improvement is going to be seismic.”
Dr. Yoav Alony-Gilboa was added to Farming Connect’s approved list of technical consultants in 2021, and farmers immediately utilized his expertise and secured 100% funding by collaborating as a group to access technical support.
While running the project, Alan tripled his flock to 135 ewes, switched to once-a-day milking and developed a phased approach to lambing, with groups of ewes lambing from February to May, to extend the milk availability period. .
The group has just concluded and will soon publish their findings, including how the Lleyn breed offers the potential for a large milk and sheep meat system for Welsh farmers.
Alan Jones became a Farming Connect Mentor in 2019, opening the door for many farmers to benefit from his knowledge and experience.
To thrive in an emerging industry, dairy sheep farmers like Bryn Perry and Rebecca Morris of Haverfordwest had to think outside the box. After winning the ‘Agri-Academy Challenge’ in 2021 as one of two members that year to be involved in sheep milking, Bryn returned home to continue working on whey conversion of sheep’s milk left over from the cheese-making process into vodka, a first in Wales.
Launched in 2022, “Ewe Whey Vodka” comes from the distillation of whey to make a vodka with a creamy finish that is drunk neat.
“You have to look at ‘whey’ to add value if you want to milk ewes,” Bryn explained. “We have made good progress in our cheese and ice cream production, which gives us the foundation to grow our herd, and the new vodka we have developed gives us another string to our bow moving forward. .
“I was very grateful for the experiences I had from the Agri-Academy at Farming Connects and the extra help settling in as a newcomer and first generation tenant on a Pembrokeshire Council farm” , Bryn said. “And the Agrisgôp group has been invaluable in accelerating our learning and networking.”
Huw Jones from Llannerchymedd chose to take his new business down a more intensive route, starting with a flock of 200 ewes and soon realized he had to venture beyond the farm to learn from others. In 2019, he was awarded a Farming Connect management exchange which allowed him to travel to south-eastern France to see several well-established dairy sheep flocks first-hand. He then went to meet dairy sheep farmers in the North of England to continue his learning about the pros and cons of different breeds to milk.
“I finished the study trips convinced that the Welsh climate is arguably better for milking sheep than the places I’ve seen in France,” said Huw, who is now in his fourth year of milking. “It also reinforced the harsh reality of the industry at the moment in Wales that you have to find or develop your own path to market.”
“I was surprised to find that a flock of 50 sheep provided a good livelihood for a farmer in France, with added value through processing into cheese and yoghurt. Consumer awareness of sheep’s milk products in the UK lags well behind that in France, although there are strong indicators of change,” said Huw.
As Agrisgôp’s leader and EIP innovation broker, Geraint Hughes of Lafan Consultancy Group has played a facilitating role in helping farmers get the most out of Farming Connect support.
“We had virtually no provision for raising dairy sheep in 2017 through Farming Connect,” Geraint observed. “Once it became clear there was momentum, Farming Connect was able to respond and offer a suite of support that has supported the sector in a variety of ways, from creating space to farmers to meet to exchange experiences and views, providing peer-to-peer support for highly technical work aimed at determining what impacts milk quality on farms.
“What was particularly enjoyable to watch was how farmers looked at and understood Farming Connect and identified ways to adapt the different layouts to meet their demands at the time,” Geraint said.
Even during the shutdowns, regular virtual events have taken place with a Farming Connect dairy sheep webinar attracting over 80 live viewers during winter 2021. Making the most of virtual technology, New Zealand farmers, from the United States and Ireland all shared their experiences with Welsh farmers milking the sheep.
In August 2021, Hanna and George Finlay of Ballyhubbock Farm in West Wicklow, Ireland, took part in a 20-minute “Zoom Around the World” video commissioned by Farming Connect, where they gave insight into their farming business milking sheep and processing on the farm to make cheese and ice cream. Visit the Farming Connect YouTube channel to watch their inspiring story.
With 2022 set to break records again for Wales’ nascent dairy sheep sector, one person who was lucky enough to work in the shadow of pioneer farmers has a dream, which involves sheep, but without having to count them.
“We have award-winning sheep’s milk cheeses made by ‘Cosyn Cymru’ in Bethesda, and a whole new line launched by farmers Scott and Isabel Coates under the ‘Monmouth Shepherd’ brand,” said Geraint Hughes. “We can also add milkshakes, yoghurt and ewes whey vodka to this list of Welsh products – I look forward one day to being able to celebrate with everyone involved in the Welsh dairy sheep sector and enjoy a feast made with all these fantastic products.”
Farming Connect, which is provided by Menter a Busnes and Lantra, has received funding through the Welsh Government’s Rural Development Program 2014-2020 for rural communities, which is funded by the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development and the Welsh government.