Perfection: Belted Galloway, dairy sheep and cheese

CE-MR-2-Meadowood Farms1by Tamara Scully

Award winning Belted Galloway cattle and award-winning sheep’s milk cheese can be found on the same farm in Cazenovia, NY. But there’s no competition on the farm: both the sheep and cattle are thriving, providing milk, meat and superior genetics in a finely-tuned, integrated system. The farm, owned by Marc Shappell and Tom Anderson, is managed by Fiona Harrar and Seth Hanauer.

Meadowood Farms direct markets lamb, beef and cheese via the local farmers’ market, offers freezer lambs, and sells to restaurants. About six cattle, 150 market lambs and several sheep are slaughtered for meat each season. The cheeses are sold in specialty cheese shops across the nation. The animals are all pastured and intensively rotationally grazed 24 hours/day from May-November, enjoying lush orchard grass, timothy, perennial rye and clover. Pastures are rested a minimum of three days. About 35 acres of pasture are typically taken as a first hay cutting before being pastured. No herbicides or pesticides are used on the pastures, which are maintained via controlled grazing and mowing.

“We do a lot of clipping in the spring and summer after grazing, so the clover does not get out-competed by the grass,” Harrar said. “We frost seed in late winter, early spring.”

The animals graze in four grazing groups: dairy sheep; lambs for market and replacement; brood cows; and calves, heifers and steers. The prized dairy sheep flock is kept on prime pastures. The pastures closest to the barn are dedicated to the flock, for ease milking. The dairy flock is moved into a new paddock following each milking, and lambs and calves are also moved daily. Brood cows are moved every 2-3 days. Sheep are guarded by Great Pyrenees and Maremma dogs, who keep predators away. Border collies herd both sheep and cows.

“Grazing cows behind sheep really helps to break up the parasite cycles,” Harrar said. “We do not have a lot of parasite problems with the sheep.”

During the winter months, animals are barn housed. They use straw bedding, creating a bedded pack which is composted in the spring. The compost is then spread on the fields. Hay is fed, primarily purchased from off-farm, during the winter.

Cattle breeding

The farm takes pride in its breeding program. Their Belted Galloway genetics are first-rate, and recognized as such by the industry. Breeding cows were first purchased in 2002, and the farm has developed award-winning heifers and bulls over the past decade.

“We chose Belted Galloway because they are a heritage breed, and appeal to the grass-fed market,” Kay Weaber, Meadowood Farms cattle consultant said. “They are also hardy and do well in our central New York climate.”
In fact, they do very well. With a cattle breeding strategy designed for the real world, Meadowood Farms Belted Galloway genetics has resulted in numerous awards over the past years. They recently won the award for 2012 Show Bull of the Year for the Belted Galloway Society, and that bull also was recognized as the 2012 National Champion. And that’s just the beginning. The farm has won Premier Breeder and Premier Exhibitor at the Big E, as well as at the Belted Galloway Show, several times over the years. But their animals aren’t just pretty. They are bred for completeness, with an eye towards maximizing positive traits, while minimizing negative ones.
“We believe firmly in the theory that we ‘show our breeding cattle, not breed for show cattle’,” Weaber said.
The farm will breed about 20 cows for 2014 calving. They’ve been breeding with leased natural service sires, and this year’s National Champion Female, Meadowood Yona, was one such offspring. She won Grand Champion Heifer at The Big E, World Beef Expo and the National Show. They’ve recently started to purchase some embryos and semen as well. Calves are creep fed until weaning, then put on pasture, with a very small grain supplement Calves will go through several sorting sessions until the show string animals are selected.

The show herd stays on the farm until September, when they are housed in Kentucky for the fall show season. This also provides the opportunity for them to remain on pasture. It’s easier to prepare cattle for showing in a milder climate, too, and they are close to the remaining shows of the season. But back at Meadowood Farms, the work continues, as fall calving is in full swing, and the ewes are drying off and being bred.

Dairy sheep

The dairy sheep produce milk used to craft the farm’s award-winning pasteurized cheeses. They recently took home second place in the 2013 Farmstead Cheese, aged over 60 days, category at the American Cheese Society Competition in Madison, WI.

Head cheesemaker Veronica Pedraza makes three cheeses based on recipes from the Piedmont region of Italy. The cheeses are named after people or places in Cazenovia history. The Rippleton is rind-washed, the Ledyard is soft-ripened and the Lorenzo is a cooked and pressed curd cheese.

The sheep are a mix of European dairy sheep, primarily East Friesian, with some Lacaune genetics recently introduced, Harrar said. “European dairy sheep are known for higher milk production and lactation persistence.” The sheep are naturally bred, with low producers bred back to Texel and Tunis lambs to produce better quality meat.

“We have between 250 and 300 lambs during a three week period in March and April,” Harrar said. “We have a lot of triplets and quads.”

A big concern during lambing is pneumonia, and East Friesian sheep are particularly susceptible. They lamb in the barn, with adequate ventilation and dry bedding, which are of primary importance in preventing the disease.
“We wean them at 30 days old so we can start milking the ewes once they go out on pasture,” Harrar explained. “A lot of sheep dairies take the lambs off immediately just like cow dairies, and raise the lambs on milk replacer. Since we do all of our lambing in a three week period, with almost 300 lamb, we find leaving them on the ewes works best for us.” Lambs are creep fed until weaning, when they are put on pasture.

Milk production

Sheep are milked from May until mid-October, when they start to dry up. Early in lactation, the milk production is at about 6-7 pounds per day for the best producers, and about 4 pounds on average. Six pounds of sheep’s milk will make a pound of cheese, compared to the 10 pounds needed of cow’s milk, Harrar said.

“With sheep, it’s all about the butterfat,” she said. “We produce about 50,000 pounds of milk in a season. Maintaining the components of the milk is a priority.”

The sheep receive a small amount of hay and corn in the milking parlor, about one pound per milking. They are milked on a small low line milking platform, with 12 milking units, all of which are automated. Milk is pumped and stored in a 300 gallon bulk tank. The farm plans to add about 20 more sheep to the milking flock this upcoming year.

Meadowood Farms strives always to fulfill its mission: “to take pride in our well-cared-for and productive animals; to take pride in our well-managed and vigorous pastures; and to produce food that reflects the pride we take in our land and our livestock.” With award-winning animals and products, they must be doing something right.

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