Unique Ag niche, Bushnell, Neb. home to unique sheep dairy
Bushnell, Neb. – Bill and Virginia Halligan have found their own unique agricultural niche starting a sheep dairy.
The Halligans started the Irish Cream Sheep Dairy in 1995, after raising sheep for 30 years. The U.S. only has about 150 commercial sheep dairies, so what they do is considered unique.
With help from their son, Cody and several employees, the Bushnell, Neb. couple milks about 650 ewes and feeds more than 1,000 bum lambs.
Starting in the business
The Halligans started the dairy with just 20 Dorset ewes, which were good milkers and known as out-of-season breeders.
Halligan then purchased breeds of ewes known for their milking ability to add to his sheep dairy. The Dorset ewes were crossed with two other milking breeds, East Friesian, which originates in Holland, and Lacaune, which originates in France. The East Friesian breed is also known for out-of-season breeding, as well.
One of the biggest obstacles in operating a sheep dairy is creating a year-long supply of milk. Sheep are known as seasonal breeders, so using breeds that can breed out-of-season is important, Halligan says.
Their goal is three lamb crops every two years and a 200 percent lamb crop.
The ewes can also be difficult to inseminate because their cervix is crooked and at an awkward angle, Halligan says.
Artificially inseminating a ewe can be expensive and time consuming. The ewe has to be flipped upside down in a chute, and artificially inseminated using a syringe that is inserted through the belly into the uterus.
It is also difficult to find dairy sheep semen, because bloodlines are limited, and importing it from sheep dairy countries like France can be difficult, he explains.
Milking the ewes
The ewes are milked twice a day, and the milk goes into a bulk tank. From there, employees measure and bag the milk into five gallon bags that are laid flat and frozen. The whey can be frozen for up to a year at -15 degrees Fahrenheit, and Halligan describes its consistency similar to ice cream.
They have a grade A dairy, so they are inspected. Sheep milk is much more concentrated, Halligan explains, and they only sell it to certified creameries.
Sheep milk has 50 percent more protein than other milks, which means it only takes five pounds of milk to produce a one pound block of cheese. Cow and goat milk take 10 pounds of milk to make one pound of cheese.
During peak production, the milk is shipped to California every other week, once they have enough to fill a refrigerated semi-trailer.
When it arrives at the creamery, it is made into several varieties of cheese, like Blue Roquefort and Feta. Some is also used to make yogurt.
Since the family also farms, they try to raise as much of their feed, as possible.
“We feed a lot of hay, corn silage and grain to keep the sheep milking well,” Halligan says. “We don’t have a dairy sheep nutritionist, but we consult with a dairy cow nutritionist.”
The operation also raises bum lambs. Halligan says he has experimented with different ways of feeding bum lambs and feels the system he has now works best.
“We tried the Lac-Tek system, which mixes and warms the milk, but it required a lot of maintenance,” he says. “We also tried different milk replacers, but many of them were powder that lacked protein. A lot of lambs died.”
Halligan now uses principles from the Spooner Agricultural Research Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison for raising lambs. Researchers at the university looked into how to raise bum lambs and, based on their research findings, developed a management program. Halligan was able to implement and successfully use this program to raise bum lambs.
All the ewes are milked, and none of them raise lambs, Halligan says. The lambs are taken from the ewes at birth and placed in a small pen in a heated room.
The lamb is tubed with good colostrum at five percent of its body weight. It is fed twice in the first eight hours, and then every four to six hours for the next 16 hours.
Halligan says they use a big drenching gun with a catheter.
After the last tubing, the lamb is taught how to suck a nipple and is then moved over to milk, supplied by a small herd of Jersey cows.
“We use the Jersey milk because it provides the lambs with milk that has higher fat content,” he says. “I don’t think this system would work as well with Holsteins.”
The lambs are fed through a gravity flow system containing a series of sterile tubing and nipples that deliver warm milk from the cows. The system is serviced every day and thoroughly cleaned every three to four days, Halligan says.
Milk is provided for the lambs whenever they are hungry.
“We control intake by always having feed in front of them,” he says. “They don’t overeat because they never run out of feed.”
He also starts the lambs on a high protein pellet with Deccox by one week of age.
The lambs are sized and kept in pens of 35 head.
At two weeks, they increase the pen size to 50 lambs per pen. The pens are kept clean, with dry bedding and clean air. Providing clean water is also important, he says.
Halligan also recommends giving the lambs three C, D and T shots by 100 pounds, and one cubic centimeter (cc) of penicillin orally.
The lambs should also be vaccinated for sore mouth.
After 30 days, the lambs are weaned and put onto a feed grain diet. Some of the ewe lambs are kept as replacements and the rest are sold as feeder lambs.
Gayle Smith is a correspondent for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to firstname.lastname@example.org.