The Michielsons’ ewes are turned out to graze with the flock after evening milking. Brian and Tammy Michielson milk 100 sheep near Ladysmith, Wis. PHOTO BY BRITTANY OLSON
The Michielsons’ ewes are turned out to graze with the flock after evening milking. Brian and Tammy Michielson milk 100 sheep near Ladysmith, Wis.
LADYSMITH, Wis. - What started as their child's 4-H project blossomed into a superb enterprise for Brian and Tammy Michielson's Maple Hill Farm.
The Michielsons milk dairy sheep - 100 East Friesian-mix ewes - on their farm near Ladysmith, Wis. Although they sell a portion of their milk to a cooperative, the rest is used to make soaps and lotions to sell through their community-supported agriculture business.
The couple bought their 40-acre farm in 2006 and began raising beef cattle, pigs and poultry to establish their CSA business. Their son, Nathan, who is now in college, soon got two club lambs afterward to show at the Rusk County Fair.
"When we bought the farm, it was an old dairy farm," Brian said. "Since there were other sheep farmers in the area and a nearby sheep milk cooperative, we decided to start milking."
Ten years later, those dairy ewes have put the Michielsons on the map. Brian and Tammy's 100-ewe flock averages about 800 pounds of milk per lactation, amounting to four pounds of milk per day. Unlike dairy cows, ewes are in milk for 220 days, or about eight months. Because each ewe's milk production is linked to the amount of daylight she receives per day, the Michielsons begin lambing in mid-winter to take advantage of growing day length.
"That extra 30 seconds of daylight really makes a difference in milk production," Tammy said.
Because their thick, woolen coats keep them hot during the day, the ewes mostly graze at night. After the summer solstice in June, shorter days signal a gradual drop in milk. Brian said ewe lactations end around the same time, regardless of when lambs hit the ground.
"If you lamb in January, they'll be dry in August, and if you lamb in May they'll still be dry by August," Brian said. "It's like a switch gets flipped. It's that noticeable."
By summer's end, the ewes are dried off. Since sheep are seasonal creatures, they only come into estrus in the fall. They are wormed at dry-off, and then the ram gets turned out with the ewes to breed that coming winter's crop of lambs. In January, lambing begins and ewes enter the milking string once again; Brian and Tammy estimated that ewes begin and end lambing all within a span of three weeks.
Although the ewes are turned out to graze after evening milking, they are housed in a large shed close to the barn during the day. A retrofitted milking parlor was built in the old dairy barn on the Michielsons' property, There are six milking machines in the parlor, and a total of 18 ewes can fit in the parlor at one time - 10 on one side and eight on the other. Brian said it takes 20 minutes to milk one group of ewes, and it takes about an hour to milk 50.
"Sheep are definitely flock animals," Brian said. "If one ewe leads the way, the rest will follow. The same concept applies to them getting out."
Carr Valley Cheese, based in LaValle, Wis., picks up the milk produced by the Michielsons' flock and makes it into several varieties of cheese. However, not all the milk goes to cheesemaking; in fact, the flock has allowed for another enterprise to take hold at Maple Hill Farm.
"I've always had very sensitive skin, and I had to make my own soaps and lotions," Tammy said.
She began experimenting with creating those lotions and soaps from sheep milk. After discovering they worked, she decided to sell them in their already popular on-farm store, where they market their home-raised meats and eggs. The lotion and soap proved to be a hit with customers.
"They sell very well," Tammy said.
Tammy takes milk from the bulk tank and freezes it. Since she uses lye to make soap, having a cold and slushy milk works better for making soap because the lye would otherwise burn the milk. From there, she mixes in a blend of botanicals and essential oils. In addition to taking three to four hours to make one batch of soap, the mixture is poured into molds and cured for six weeks.
"Each batch makes about 54 bars," Tammy said.
Lotion is much less labor-intensive to make. It requires no curing time, and Tammy only needs about an hour or so to make one batch of sheep's milk lotion. She makes three batches of soap per week.
Because the soaps and lotions are made and sold on the farm, the venture provides an avenue for customers to learn about food and farming in addition to their CSA.
"Our farm has the same visitors' hours that the store does," Brian said. "We encourage customers to take a tour of the farm."
Tammy agreed.
"We like to say, 'Know your farmer, know your food,'" she said.
While they didn't have official numbers for tours on hand, the Michielsons said February through April are especially busy when the lambs are out and frolicking around the farm.
In the future, Brian and Tammy will continue with the milking flock. They are hoping their youngest son, Brandon, 17, will come home and take over the farm when he is ready.
"Brandon is Brian's right-hand man," Tammy said with a smile.
In addition, they want to keep investing in the dairy sheep industry in Wisconsin. For example, in their on-farm store they sell sheep's milk cheese from a dairy in Bayfield, Wis., and sheep's milk yogurt from a creamery in Clear Lake, Wis., in addition to the products produced from their own milk.
"There are about 20 sheep dairies in Wisconsin. We all know each other and we're all friends," Brian said.
From two tiny lambs to milking a large flock of ewes, what started as something small for the Michielson family became the blueprint for their mission to help others learn about farming and food.