Manawatu sheep milking couple hand craft all their own cheese

Kirsty Silvester and Dave Chapman at their Woodville Wildbush sheep milking farm.
PHOTO: MURRAY WILSON/FAIRFAX NZ

Kirsty Silvester and Dave Chapman at their Woodville Wildbush sheep milking farm.

A cottage industry began with just three ewes when Kirsty Silvester and Dave Chapman wanted to test the water to see if milking sheep was for them.

Their philosophy is to only do something if it makes them happy. The same approach was taken to sheep milking and if the size of their operation is any indication then milking ewes and cheese-making has left them contented.

The couple said they made their mistakes with just a few milking ewes, while big operations made theirs with thousands of ewes.

Cheese produced by the couple sits in the creamery fridge awaiting sale.
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Cheese produced by the couple sits in the creamery fridge awaiting sale.

The do-it-yourself operation involved only Silvester and Chapman.  He was the farmer, keeping an eye on the livestock and their genealogy, while she was the cheese-maker.

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The tools of the sheep milking and cheese making trade used by Chapman and Silvester.
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The tools of the sheep milking and cheese making trade used by Chapman and Silvester.

Their inspiration came from Italy, where they were married.  In the north of Italy they worked on a small dairy farm, taking the animals out to pasture each morning.

"I learned how to milk sheep and goats by hand, while Dave did some building, scything and shearing (with old school clippers)," Silvester said. They also took the animals out to pasture each morning. "That started us thinking [about sheep milking ourselves]."

They were not vehement supporters of sheep milk, and were a bit ambivalent but decided to give it a go, with the ewes they had.

"When we got home, we did a bit of research about milking sheep and the New Zealand dairy regulations.  We trained our existing romney flock by feeding them sheep pellets," Silvester said. Three of the ewes were tame enough to milk and did not move around or kick off cups.

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Chapman designed and built the mark one milking platform and Silvester was successful at making feta, halloumi and ricotta.

The idea was a goer and the flock grew as they introduced new bloodlines to breed east friesian rams and poll dorset ewes. Now they have 100 ewes and 48 of them are milking sheep.

"We have a mixture of east friesians and other breeds and see what works best here. It is wet in the Woodville area. But we grow plenty of grass," Chapman said.

Kirsty says the black east friesian do well in the conditions because they don't succumb to sunburn on their tender ears as the white ones do.

"We only have enough for us to milk, and we have vowed that we stay smallish.  To do that, we have to name every ewe, and know her name," Silvester said.

Bigger sheep milking operations quite often went with numbers. But even when Chapman and Silvester were milking ewes for friends, they always gave each sheep a name.

Suzi, Friday, Black Velvet, Mary, and Black Pearl - to name just a few - were among flock members and the ram was called Smuggler. Each name had a meaning for them and could be traced to music, a performer or an album.

RUNNING THE OPERATION

Today the musically influenced flock is milked in a new shed, built by Chapman and Silvester, who worked many 14 hour days to get it finished. Taking 10 ewes at a time, the shed has been operating since December.  

Inside there was a state-of-the-art cheese-making plant with white walls, fridges that held different cheeses, stainless benches and sinks.

About 1-2 litres of milk was extracted per sheep each day from about September until the middle of February and all of it was turned into cheese. "Sheep are not like cows, they don't milk year round," Chapman said.

Both of them were pleased to be seasonal milkers as it enabled them to get to markets and sell the produce. In the off-season, Silvester also held cheese-making courses.

Their operation was on six hectares, plus 1.5ha at home and they leased a further 3ha. From their small base they produced 1700 litres of sheep milk and made 450 kilograms of cheese.

People's palates had become more educated and they now knew their cheese, Chapman said. The cheese eating public was less informed only a few years ago.

"I make feta, and flavoured feta with chilli and garlic, and sun-dried tomatoes and basil, and I make a halloumi which is popular and has sold out, and a pecorino, a semi-hard cheese," Silvester said.

She sold as much of it locally as possible at Dannevirke, Ohau, the Hokowhitu market in Palmerston North and in Wairarapa. "You have to figure out your own systems that work for you," she said.

They could have bought or managed a bigger operation, but preferred to be smaller producers. Running sheep and making cheese from their milks suited them fine.

"We both like markets, you get to talk to people and for them to try the cheese.  Quite often the mum buys, and the dad just waits."

Chapman said men were often open to trying something, and he approached them.

"The hardest sell is to sheep and beef farmers. The smell of sheep they associate with dagging."

He talked about a farmer he approached who was waiting for his wife.

"The farmer told me he didn't like cheese. But he tried some of ours, when I insisted. When his wife came back and asked him about it.  He said 'well it wasn't horrible'. Perhaps we should have that on our packaging."

While they were small time operators and did everything themselves, they had received much help and support from others in the sheep milking industry and from dairy farmers as well, Chapman said.

"I thought they might, but no one has scoffed at us.  They have all been very supportive.  There are some big operations. I think here in New Zealand we have the Fonterra mentality and often think big is good."

Chapman and Silvester were determined to carry on running the operation themselves. Employing staff would mean they would have to produce a lot more cheese just to get beyond the level of production they already do.

Chapman was a practical handyman and had built their house, the dairy shed and the cheese-making plant with Kirsty's help. Big pots for cheese making were imported.

"We couldn't get them in New Zealand anywhere. I tried Auckland.  Nothing was big enough.  Then we saw really big pots in Singapore and bought them."

They staggered around with the large pots in Singapore and somehow got them back to New Zealand.

When production increased, a small in-built tank was on the horizon, so the pots will eventually be put to one side.

The ewes were due to start lambing on the last day of July.  The lambs were left on them for five weeks, when they were weaned and could cope with being separated and the ewes were milked after that.

Dave said the ram lambs were sold in March or April at local stock sales. A few of the rams were kept for mating with the ewe flock or swapped with other producers.

When it came to making cheese, Silvester pasteurised their own milk, at 69.2 degrees Celsius for five minutes. While she would not mind making raw cheeses (non pasteurised), dealing with the regulations had stopped her.

GROWING THE OPERATION

"In 2013, we had three sheep, we had 20 in 2014  and 2015, then 2016-7 we had 48," Silvester said. They planned to double their milk production next season.

"We are aiming for 40 litres a day, that equates to 1000 kilograms of cheese."

That will require more milking, more cheese to make and sell and Kirsty and Dave appreciate they will have their work cut out to achieve their goal. But they reckon they'll cope.

Silvester has written the website for their 'Wildbush' handmade sheep cheeses and some cheese is sold on line. She vacuum packed all cheeses herself, and printed the labels, designed and made by her.

Often friends and family pitched in and Silvester's parents helped by going to some markets. She liked to create new cheese products and the latest offerings were combined with wine, or rubbed with chilli.

The couple are close to being self sufficient. They have hens and roosters and of course their cheese is homegrown while their meat and honey also comes from their own land. Enjoyment for them comes from doing their own thing and only relying on themselves and family.

 - Stuff

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