February 15, 2021 at 2:32 p.m.
Dairying Across America

A different dairy

Spertus milks sheep in Missouri
Eliza Spertus milks 200 sheep in a 12-sheep pit parlor twice daily on Green Dirt Farm near Weston, Missouri. Spertus has been the farm manager since 2015. PHOTO SUBMITTED
Eliza Spertus milks 200 sheep in a 12-sheep pit parlor twice daily on Green Dirt Farm near Weston, Missouri. Spertus has been the farm manager since 2015. PHOTO SUBMITTED

By Danna [email protected] | Comments: 0 | Leave a comment

    WESTON, Mo. – On the rural hills lining the Missouri River lies an idyllic sheep farm right out of a storybook. To Eliza Spertus, this haven is home.
    In 2002, Spertus’ mother, Sarah Hoffmann, purchased a parcel of land just outside quaint Weston, about an hour’s drive northwest of Kansas City. She was looking for a good place to raise her children and start a farm.
    The farm, coined Green Dirt Farm, pasture-raised East Friesian dairy sheep and eventually began to make cheese with the milk produced. Today, 200 sheep are milked twice-daily in a 12-sheep pit parlor. The sheep spend the days grazing and evenings in the barn.
    “I love the work,” said Spertus, farm manager. “It’s hard work, and it’s too hard that if I didn’t love it, I wouldn’t do it.”
    After working various office jobs post-college, Spertus assumed the role of farm manager in 2015.  
    “At that time, I hadn’t worked on the farm or with animals in years, so Mom really took a gamble on me,” Spertus said. “I’m very appreciative, and I’ve been farm manager for five years now. It’s a lot of fun.”
    Spertus begins her day in the parlor at 5:30 for morning milking. That is complete around 8 a.m., and the milking ewes go out to pasture and spend the day on the grass. Then, Spertus takes care of the rams and any dry ewes as well as the farm’s livestock guardian dogs.
    The day takes shape around the seasons and projects happening on the farm and ends after evening milking around 8 p.m. Their busiest season is during lambing, and spring or summer when sheep need to be moved to new pastures on a frequent basis.
    Spertus said one of her largest challenges since taking over the farm’s management has been establishing strong genetics.
    “In the United States, there’s not very much research in sheep genetics,” Spertus said. “The flock I inherited when I came on as manager was low-producing. We had a lot of sheep but low production.”
    Spertus has made it her goal to change that. She is focusing on animals that can perform in the environment and land available.
    “My goal is to have 200 high-performing ewes milking year-round with staggered lambing,” Spertus said.
    The dairy grazes their sheep on the acreage surrounding the farm, maintaining a mostly grass-fed flock. Spertus conducts monthly health checks on each animal, recording weight and production numbers so she can cull the flock based on the data.
    “We are lucky enough to have a DeLaval single 12-pit parlor and have milk meters on the milkers,” Spertus said about tracking her flock’s production. “We don’t collect daily right now, but twice a week in morning and evening milking we collect the data and put it in a spreadsheet.”
    She also uses a service similar to DHIA that records production data like fat, protein, lactose and somatic cell counts.
    This is the second year Spertus has been using artificial insemination, with semen imported from France. Lacaune, a dairy sheep breed from southern France, is known for their hardy nature against disease, large temperature swings, and high fat and protein components in the milk they produce.  
    “(The Lacaune) are high-production, all around great animals that do well on pasture,” Spertus said. “Our farm is mostly pasture based, so this is a priority for us.”
    The remainder of the sheep’s diet is supplemented with grass hay, available in the barn at night. They also get a treat of grain during milking, but most of their diet is on the rolling hills of the Missouri River valley.
    “We manage our pastures using temporary ElectroNet fencing with portable solar boxes,” Spertus said. “This enables us to move our sheep whenever – and pretty much wherever – we want on the farm.”
    The paddocks are regularly rotated using management intensive grazing practices.
    “In the winter, the sheep graze on free-choice hay in the fields,” Spertus said. “We choose the fields that they winter strategically, focusing on fields that need more nutrients or better grass growth the following spring.”
    The farm continues to move the sheep until early spring when the grass starts to come up. At that point, they choose a sacrifice pasture to put the sheep on while the grass in other areas is established enough to sustain rotational grazing. This sacrifice pasture is then reseeded and vacant until it can support grazing.
    When Spertus came on as farm manager, the flock was mostly comprised of East Friesian sheep. A common breed of dairy sheep in the United States, the Dutch breed is not as parasite-resistant as their French counterparts.
    Another challenge for the farm is maintaining a steady supply of milk to make cheese, especially through high demand months, specifically November and December. Unlike bovines, sheep are very seasonal in their breeding patterns. They long to be bred in the fall and lamb in early spring. As daylight hours decrease, they start to gradually produce less.
    “A long-term goal of mine is to continue to milk through the end of the year so the cheese kitchen still has milk in November,” Spertus said.
    They are currently supplementing some of their milk with a neighboring grass-fed Jersey dairy, where they combine the milks to make hybrid cheeses and ice cream. Ruby is their featured blended cheese, loosely inspired by Robiola cheese.
    Sheep milk is notable for making some of the best cheeses in the world. Furthermore, there are very few sheep cheese producers in the United States, allowing Hoffman to slip into a niche market with the sheep already grazing her pastures.  
    The Green Dirt Farm Creamery, a cheese shop and restaurant, opened in Weston in 2016. Before that, Hoffmann was making cheeses and selling them indirectly in local markets.
    Today a team of scientists, shop workers and staff fill the shop which offers sandwiches, cheese boards, soups, ice cream, charcuterie, wine, liquor, lamb and more.
    Green Dirt Farm’s cheese kitchen, located on the farm, makes a variety of cheeses including Bossa, their signature sheep cheese with a soft, silky texture and custard-like center. Their Prairie Tomme is a hard sheep cheese modeled after Manchego cheese.
    The cheese kitchen is located in the hill, below the milking parlor. After milking, the bulk tank is emptied below to the vats where it is tended to by cheesemakers and turned into cheese.
    Spertus has found her stride as farm manager, and loves working with animals on a daily basis.
     “I think farming is one of those things that people are born to do, and they love it,” Spertus said.
    She looks forward to the daily trials and problems she can solve.
    “It’s exciting to know when an animal needs help, you can help it,” Spertus said about pulling lambs. “It’s so empowering to be able to just jump in and do it, even if you’re terrified.”
    Overall, she loves spending time with her sheep and the rewards that come from that.
    “Sheep are crazy, and they can annoy me 55% of the time, but the other 45% they’re great,” Spertus said. “I love what I get to do every day. There’s something really special about watching a lamb go through its entire life cycle.”


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