Scare them even slightly and production drops.
“This makes it much harder to milk sheep than cows,” said Kangaroo Island Pure Sheep Dairy general manager Tiff Turner of her 1400-head flock.
“Their fats are higher and their milk is creamier, but they yield much less than a cow.”
As problematic as they are, Tiff and the team of 15 at Kangaroo Island Pure Sheep Dairy have increased the degree of difficulty on the 260ha farm significantly — all in the name of seeking perfection.
With about 100 tourists a day visiting the dairy’s cafe and cheesery, the property’s once-a-day milking is scheduled at noon as a drawcard for tourists. (Tiff has even been helping to build a microbrewery on the property, due to open next month).
“Tourists can pat the lambs and bottle feed them. The tourism aspect alone is a massive juggling exercise,” said the 44-year-old.
But the degrees of difficulty continue.
Because the farm has no irrigation and dries off in summer, Tiff has been experimenting with pastures, renovating about 50ha a year, including a trial area of dryland lucerne for hay and grazing, as well as retro-fitting a shed for hydroponic barley, aiming to grow 100kg a day.
“The idea is to get from seed to feed in 10 days,” said Tiff, who is building the system.
When the flock faced a high worm burden in winter, she introduced the resistant genetics of Black Suffolk. The breed’s sturdy feet also work well with the farm’s challenging clay soil.
WHEN faced with a big drop in milk yield in summer, Tiff introduced Dorset and Composite genetics, which fill a three-month supply window.
Then, with that introduction of dual-purpose meat sheep, in May last year she launched the dairy’s own meat brand, selling fresh cuts and smallgoods through their on-farm shop, alongside cheeses.
As for the wool — with sheep shorn twice a year — Tiff said she was content to sell the fleece at a price sufficient to pay the shearers’ wages, with no value-adding plans yet.
And if all this was not complicated enough, she is in the process of refining the flock’s genetics, probably the most challenging aspect of the dairy.
It is an impressive track record, given Tiff is trained as a panel beater and in earth moving, and only started milking at the dairy three years ago with little farming experience.
The dairy was started in 1992 by two families, who sold it about a decade ago to Geoff and Cathy Rischbeith, who live in Adelaide.
Tiff said when she started as general manager she inherited a melting pot of genetics, including Merino, Poll Dorset, White Suffolk, Texel, as well as Awassi and East Friesian (the cross of which creates an Assaf).
To this she has added the Black Suffolk and Composite breeds, as well as SAMM and Damara.
Understandably, joining — which happens every two months — is a complex process between these breeds, with the flock tagged using the National Livestock Identification System, as well as Tiff’s own coloured tagging system.
“If we didn’t tag them and keep records of all the genetics and data, then it would be impossible to have an idea of what was going on,” she said.
THIS year, for the first time, the flock will be closed with the aim of focusing on Assaf-Black Suffolks, as well as SAMM-Damara and a few Dorsets and composites for summer supply, she said.
The farm has sourced Awassi ewes from Grandvewe Cheese in Tasmania and East Friesian rams from Prospect stud at Kyneton.
“It’s so easy to find Awassi and East Friesian meat genetics, but almost impossible to find dairy genetics, and there’s big difference between the two,” Tiff said.
“The stature gives it away. Awassi meat is thicker on the back, while dairy have a lower belly and a slightly bigger chest and thinner legs.”
To reduce the worm burden, the flock is rotated every two days and paddocks rested between one and two weeks.
Tiff also gives sheep an apple cider vinegar drench to reduce fecal eggs.
Pastures are a mix of annual and perennial ryegrasses, subclovers, and crops such as oats, in addition to the trial dryland lucerne and the hydroponic barley.
Supplementary grain is supplied from the mainland and also from the island, and fed in the dairy and to ewes at lambing and to rams.
The flock is also given loose licks: “I find salt blocks not uniform in nutrients and granulated loose licks are more consistent.
“If ever I like something I read about it, study it, do a trial and experiment, and if it’s good, we keep it,” Tiff said.
The dairy is a German GEA imported 12-a-side herringbone dairy made for sheep (Tiff describes herself as a “bush mechanic”, known to fix components on the dairy and when she cannot find a part, makes parts from a 3D printer).
With a daily milking, the total yield was 60,000 litres last year, but Tiff predicts that figure will double this year after refining genetics. Ewes are milked up to 10 years of age.
“Merinos yield about half a litre a day, whereas an Assaf is two litres a day, so it makes a big difference to move away from the Merinos,” she said.
Compared with dairy cows, protein and fat rates in the flock are high, up to 8 per cent.
TIFF is also “extremely strict” on cleanliness and sanitation to ensure a cell count well below that of South Australian dairy industry requirements.
Every day she tests 24 sheep, also monitoring milk in the vat each day, which means every milker is analysed weekly. Yards have a layer of dry woodchips while teats are sprayed with iodine once milked “because their ducts can be open longer than that of cattle”.
If any ewe is found with mastitis, they are immediately quarantined and treated.
The dairy makes more than 10 cheeses, as well as yoghurts and gelato, with one litre of milk making one litre of yoghurt, and four litres of milk making 1kg of cheese.
Cheeses are sold around Australia through major supermarkets, delis and food services, as well as on the farm, around Kangaroo Island and at one farmers’ market.
Given the sheepmeat brand only started last May, Tiff is still working on the business model. Between 20 to 40 sheep a month are sent for processing on the mainland.
“We’re hoping to get a small service kill facility on the island so all KI farmers can use it and we can guarantee Kangaroo Island meat is Kangaroo Island meat,” she said.
SAMM, Dorset and composite lambs at dressed weight 20-25kg are used in the fresh cuts. Hoggets and culled ewes are made into smallgoods.
Meat is sold on the island and in retail shops in South Australia.
“I know the meat has the potential to be huge, so it’s something we try to keep a lid on. It won’t ever be massive because it would be like starting another business and our focus is on the dairy,” she said.
Not surprisingly, Tiff works seven days a week.
“I love the farm, the sheep and I love the challenge. I’m hungry to succeed and make the business an icon,” she said.