Sheep milk captures niche market

19 May, 2017 07:28 AM
We didn’t have a huge amount of land to work with so we dabbled with plenty of ideas

NICHE farming is the only way to describe what Nicole and Scott Clements have going on at their property at the base of the Porongurup Ranges.

After moving to the area in 2004, the couple knew whatever they decided to do with their modest patch of land was going to have to be intensive.

“We didn’t have a huge amount of land to work with so we dabbled with plenty of ideas for a long time,” Nicole said.

Chickens, turkeys, grapes, lavender – you name it, the Clements thought about it but a trip to visit a sheep dairy in Northcliffe years ago stuck in their minds.

“Eventually we had a look at Cambrays sheep dairy and realised we really wanted to give that a go,” Nicole said.

So award-winning Porongurup Pure was born, with Texel and East Friesian sheep making up the milking herd, topping out at 130 ewes put through the dairy at the busiest time of year in 2016, to win the Best Small Cheese Maker award at last year’s IGA Perth Royal Show.

“We danced around the edge a bit before getting started with the dairy because we already had Texels on the property,” Nicole said.

“I think they lulled us into a false sense of security because we liked working with them.

“They do have a bit of attitude but will basically do whatever you want for a bit of food so they are easy to work with.

“When we decided to go into the dairy operation, the addition of the East Friesian breed was great because they are a really quiet breed.”

The Clements found some purebred East Friesian sheep in Yarloop more than 10 years ago and sourced some East Friesian-Border Leicesters from a local producer to start up.

Scott said the East Friesians were the prominent dairy sheep and a bit of Texel blood in them helps to hardy them up a bit.

“And the lambs out of those crosses look fantastic – they’re nice rounded lambs,” he said.

Scott said from his days working in the meat industry, he knew the Texels looked good on the hook – a factor which bolsters the dairy business.

“They’re a great meat sheep with that nice double muscling in the rump,” he said.

“The East Friesians are starting to create a bit of interest in Western Australia where there hasn’t been much choice for us genetics-wise – we’ve just got some new genetics in from Tasmania for use in an AI program.

“We’ve got a small East Friesian stud for our self-replacing herd which we serviced with AI this year, but we’ve started to get a bit of interest from commercial sheep cockies because the breed is great for crossbreeding over composites for the benefits in fertility and milk.”

Speaking of that milk – the Clements will be starting their fifth year of milking their sheep and are in their third year of on-property cheese production.

Setting up the dairy took some trial and error, along with help from kind neighbours, De Laval technicians and a research conducted by The University of WA.

“When we started looking around to buy the equipment, UWA had one at their research property in Shenton Park and there was another one up at Dandaragan,” Scott said.

“The opportunity came up for the Dandaragan dairy so we made an offer, it was accepted and then we made countless trips up the highway to collect all the gear.”

The milking platform is known as a 12 Stand Rapid Entry/Exit parlour, with equipment supplied by DeLaval.

When it came time to start putting sheep through the dairy there were a few bruises to be had while the sheep and the farmers got used to handling each other.

“But we learnt as we went, and the sheep get into their routine so it is certainly a more streamlined process now when the season is up and running,” Nicole said.

The couple started by marketing the milk and eventually got a cheese maker from Denmark to help by making hard cheeses and feta for them to mature while they were still building the necessary infrastructure on-property.

Now, next to the dairy is the cheese room, complete with all the bells and whistles so the Clements can make and mature their cheeses on-property, along with their yogurt and milk production.

The Porongurup Pure product range is available at the Albany Farmers Markets every Saturday, but is also being sourced directly by restaurants and distributors in Albany and in Perth.

“We’re getting positive feedback,” Nicole said.

“People are looking for something different and locally produced.

“There are a few issues with preconceptions of what people think sheep milk and cheeses will taste like but once you get past those barriers they are pleasantly surprised.”

The biggest livestock management issues the couple have is with the sorts of health treatments they can give their dairy stock.

“We are in a Barber’s Poll prone area and we’re limited with the sorts of drenches we can use, so we do our best to avoid those sorts of issues entirely,” Scott said.

“We use a lot of trace elements, egg counts and rotate paddocks regularly to stay on top of those sorts of issues.

“And things such as foxes aren’t much of a problem because the East Friesians are such a maternal breed they protect their young efficiently and they are helped out by the couple of neighbours who are avid fox shooters.”

When Farm Weekly visited, lambs were just starting to hit the ground.

“We used to lamb in two blocks in May and August,” Scott said.

“But this year we’ll be lambing in May, July and September which will give us the guaranteed continuity of supply through the dairy.”

The sheep are share milked, meaning the lambs are drafted off mum each night, staying under cover with feed and warmth and head back out into the paddock with their mums each day.

“We find it keeps them quiet,” Nicole said.

“They get used to the routine and often they’ll separate themselves off each night, but we number the mums and their lambs to ensure that no one gets left alone the next day.

“It’s good for the lambs growth-wise because they’re in a warm shelter at night with feed and less stress, and at the same time by the lambs staying on their mums for up to six months, it helps us out because it keeps a constant draw on the ewes and lessens hassles with mastitis.”

This year the wether lambs headed straight to Fletchers at eight to nine-months-old, making $145 on farm, while the ewe lambs are retained as the operation looks to increase numbers.

“We’re hoping to get up to about 160 milking ewes this year and 200 will probably be our cap,” Scott said.

“A Pratley milking platform from UWA at Shenton Park has been purchased and is almost ready to be set up so that will mean we’ll be able to double our number milked at once – which is exciting.

“We’re just enjoying the niche market we’re in at the moment,” Nicole said.

There are more exciting things to come out of Porongurup Pure in the future – so watch this space.

Courtney Walsh

Courtney Walsh

Courtney Walsh is a livestock journalist at Farm Weekly.


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