Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Point of No Return

For months now I've been working on the final pieces of this jigsaw puzzle that is putting a working dairy farm and cheese plant together. The building was pretty much ready to go by winter, but the concrete floor needed to be fixed because it was finished wrong. I had to wait for my loan money to order all of the equipment. I waited for the equipment to arrive (some delayed by months) and then had to figure out how the equipment worked and went together [despite what it says in the "instruction manual" that came with one piece, it was not "pretty much self explanatory"]. Pretty much all of the dairy equipment that I purchased was small-scale and from specialty manufacturers or from Europe. This meant that I received next to no information on set-up or operation and there was often no one who could answer my questions. My father was incredibly helpful in devising ways to make all of the equipment work together and researching information about heat transfer and thermal units and PSI and recirculating water systems, etc. This Monday I finally received the final puzzle piece in the form of an adapter for the outlet to my bulk tank which converts a 3" German-threaded opening to a 1.5" standard dairy fitting.

Then we needed a fenced, paved path for the animals to move to and from the building. A system of gates was designed to make a secure animal path that crossed the driveway without permanently blocking the road to the pasture. With weeks of unseasonably dry, warm sunny weather behind us, we decided it was time to pour concrete just as a very wet February began. I've been checking all of the weather forcasting sites every day looking for dry windows to work in. Ironically, the wet weather and bad economy have helped my construction efforts in a way because my friends who work construction have been available to pitch in on fence-building and concrete pouring on days when they couldn't work their regular jobs.

After way too many months of feeding my sheep alfalfa hay in the corral, and anxiously waiting for my pasture to germinate and fill in, I finally have some quality pasture. So, last week I ran some electric fence and let the ewes out to eat fresh green stuff.

And then all of a sudden I realized it was ready. Looking at the individual puzzle pieces for so long, the bigger picture had gotten to be a bit fuzzy and indistinct. It almost snuck up on me. But here it is:

It's finally happened. I've started a dairy farm. I am no longer just that chick with a bunch of sheep (as my friend Adriana said) but an actual dairy farmer and cheesemaker now. It will be at least two months before I have anything to sell and am technically in business, but I made my first commercial batch of cheese yesterday. The dairy inspectors from the California Department of Food and Agriculture have been coming out to the farm regularly over the past few months to consult on the construction and check out my equipment and layout. So, it was a pretty simple process Monday for them to come out and give me approval to begin official production.

Last Friday I separated about 40 ewes from their lambs, and with the help of my dedicated crew (Randy, Pete, and Brian) and a few extra helpers, we did the first large-scale machine milking in the new parlor. It was definitely a bit rough at times. The sheep were not particularly keen about going into the alleyway up to the barn or climbing the ramp to the stanchions. Most of them also had some difficulty figuring out how to extricate their heads from the stanchions when they were released after milking. They did all, however, enjoy the grain treat they got in the parlor. That first batch of milk went to the neighbor's pigs, but over the next few days we accumulated about 40 gallons that went in to making my first run-through cheese batch.

Every milking the sheep seem to be getting the idea more about lining up to be milked, although they still need to be encouraged to go up the ramp. By this morning most of them had figured out how to release their heads from the stanchions and exit the parlor. With all of the moving around of sheep Sedona, my faithful border collie, is in heaven. She is finally able to live out her destiny and breeding and boss those ewes around like she was born to do. Once she gets them lined up in the alleyway up to the barn, she paces back in forth in front of them like a sinister prison guard.

Like the sheep, we (the crew and I) are getting more accustomed to the milking routine and equipment and things run a little smoother every time. We have gone from five people per milking to two and are at about three hours to set-up, milk, and clean up. The goal is for one person to be able to milk about 80 sheep and clean up in two hours. We'll get there some day maybe.

In the meantime I've realized that I've reached the point of no return. There is no turning back. I have to keep milking these sheep twice-a-day, everyday as long as they have milk if I don't want them to stop producing. That means I will have a big tank (well not THAT big--50 gallons max) full of milk every few days that has to be made in to cheese if I don't want it to be wasted. Then there will be the wheels of cheese to wash and brush and turn as they age. And then they will have to be cut and packaged and sold. The sheep will have to be bred so they make new lambs and come back into milk again and then it will all start over again. whew. What was I thinking?

I love my job.

(BTW that's my mantra whenever I have to deal with something particularly unpleasant at the farm--like lancing cysts before breakfast)

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