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The Sheep Dairy in Copsale

The Sheep Dairy

Published on 1st June 2018

The Sheep Dairy has taken the rare step of milking its flock for small scale production of sheep’s milk. As it launches a new range of milkshakes, we visited Top Paddock Farm at Bulls Farm in Sedgwick and met Matt and Becky van der Borgh, owners of the company. Here, Becky discusses the challenges of the business...

How long have you been in farming? Matt grew up on Bulls Farm and his parents, Jonathan and Sarah, ran a cow dairy. After a few years living in Australia, Matt and I returned to the farm 10 years ago, moving into the cottage next to his parents’ farmhouse. By that time, the dairy had long since closed and the family had a small flock of sheep for meat production.

When did you first consider milking? We went to a national farming event called Sheep 2000, hoping to pick up some ideas. The farm wasn’t making enough money off the meat to be sustainable, but we didn’t want to lose it. Someone asked us if we’d ever thought about milking sheep, which we hadn’t. We researched it and there were financial advantages. With meat farming, you take sheep to market and are paid whatever they fetch, whereas with milk, we could set the price. However, we didn’t make the switch until five years ago. 

Was it a difficult transition? Yes, as we had to buy a new flock. Our sheep had been bred for meat, so we sold the flock to raise funds for 100 Friesland sheep. Most sheep dairies choose Lacaune sheep, which are better suited to cheese production, but we were always interested in milk. As a small farm, the margins for producing for cheese makers were minimal and better suited to large scale producers. Having said that, we did sell our milk to the excellent High Weald Dairy for a time.

Does the farm operate like a cow dairy? Our sheep are entirely grass fed in our fields here in Sedgwick. We herd the sheep to the milking parlour, which we bought from a Cornish farmer who had ceased milk production. The milk is pasteurised to give it a longer shelf life, and is then frozen until it is distributed. We milk seven days a week for six to eight months of the year. 

What happens to the sheep after the milking period? The sheep go in the field with the rams and the process begins again. We have a Friesland ram, a Lacaune ram and a Charollais meat ram. When dairy sheep (which have little meat content) cross with a meat sheep, the result is more conformation. The rams are introduced to the flock on 5 November and in February the sheep are scanned to find out which of them is pregnant. It’s lovely when the lambs arrive. Our children all enjoy getting involved and we also have students from agricultural and veterinary colleges in the area coming in to help us and gain vital experience in the industry.

What does sheep’s milk taste like? Most people assume it’s going to taste like goat’s milk, but it doesn't. It tastes more like cow’s milk, albeit creamier. It contains a greater amount of protein and calcium than cow’s milk and has smaller fat molecules, so it's easier to digest. 

Then why aren’t we all drinking sheep’s milk? The main reason is that it is more expensive. A pint retails for about £2.10 and a four-pint carton is about £7. That’s down to the small amount of milk that sheep produce. Every day, we take less than two litres from each sheep in our small flock, whereas a cow will give six to nine litres. That makes a significant difference to the price and that’s why it’s difficult to convince people to try sheep’s milk. The margins are very small. 

Do you promote sheep’s milk for its health benefits? One of the main reasons that people turn to sheep’s milk is that they are allergic to cow’s milk. If you visit a supermarket, there’s no shortage of alternatives. You can try goat’s milk, rice milk, organic milk, soy milk, coconut milk, almond milk, hemp milk and many others. Certainly, when you compare the cost of sheep’s milk to something like soy milk, the price is reasonable. However, nobody really thinks of sheep’s milk, as you don’t see it very often. We know of only one other sheep dairy in the country producing for milk rather than cheese. 

It’s a difficult sell then? It is a niche market. However, those who do try sheep’s milk have given us great feedback. We’ve had instances where babies have been given sheep’s milk because of an allergy to cow milk and its had a dramatic, positive impact on their development. One testimonial concerned a very poorly baby who wasn't holding down any milk until a doctor recommended she try sheep’s milk when she was seven months old. She's been growing on it ever since.

You also make ice cream? I started making ice cream three years ago and it’s branded as Friezee. I was so confident that it would sell that I made far too much and filled the freezer! It didn’t pan out quite as I hoped and now we only produce ice cream in small batches. We make Madagascan vanilla, chocolate orange, mint chocolate chip, lemon, chocolate and creamy caramel flavours. I’m also looking at making a rhubarb and ginger ice cream. I love to experiment and often make a special blend for country shows or events. Our coconut mango ice cream was well received, as was the Christmas brandy ice cream.

Does it taste different to regular ice cream? People often say it is pitched somewhere between sorbet and ice cream. I must have tried 60 different ways of making ice cream before finding the right method, which involved less sugar content than usual and a plant-based gum thickener. I wanted the production process to be as natural as possible.

You’ve now expanded with a milkshake range? We've talked about making shakes for a long time, as the high protein content is well suited to the health and fitness drinks market. We’re currently only making strawberry and chocolate flavours and we hope to sell the milkshake at select outlets soon. As farmers, we’re not always the best at self-promoting and placing the product in front of the right people! 

So, where can we buy your milk? We supply several local farm shops including Crates in Horsham, The Village Larder in Washington, Oakwood Farm in North Chailey and Weston's Farm in Itchingfield. 

Visit the online shop at www.sheepdairy.co.uk or email info@sheepdairy.co.uk