North Star Homestead Farms, LLC

  (Hayward, Wisconsin)
Know your Farmer, Love your Food!
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Push Me Pull Ewe

Some jobs just gotta get done on the farm, whether you like them or not.  Cleaning the chicken coop must be pretty high on the list, along with butchering, but loading pigs or sheep are near the top of the charts as well.

Now, you may be thinking, “Oh no, not the cute little lambs!”  But they’re not very little anymore—try 130 pounds (we know because we lifted them up onto the hanging scale last night!) of teenaged male sheepness.  They’re bossy, nosy, and naughty, and all they want to think about are the cute girls next door (sound familiar?).  After keeping a new young breeding ram, it’s time for the rest to go before they cause more trouble and burn up the precious winter store of hay.

At least we have loading hogs down to a science—bring the trailer up to the pen the day before so they can grow accustomed to it, build a small catch pen to keep them closer, and lure them with food, water, and kitchen goodies.  But this same use of motivators doesn’t work with loading cantankerous teenaged sheep.

To begin with, our lambs are ready in November or December, when there is too much snow and ice (especially this year) to bring the Featherlight trailer very close to the barn.  This means we’ll have to catch each sheep, loop on a rope harness, and lead it to the trailer, with a detour to the hanging scale.  Sounds simple enough, in theory.

But these sheep have never been to the county fair, halter trained, or handled regularly.  They’re in their natural state—curious but wary.  It’s dark out already (late-afternoon, this time of year), and we’re bundled up in farm coats with glowing headlamps on our foreheads.  I hold fast the gate while Mom and Kara crowd the sheep into the corner and snag three.  With the halters on snug, the lambs begin a jig, pulling, jumping, and tussling.  A black-and-white speckled faced ram lamb named “Bandit” decides to fight the halter by pouncing, rearing up on his hind legs.

“It’s bucking broncos, who needs rodeo or Monday Night Football, when you can wrestle sheep?!”  It’s pulling and tussling out through the gate and into the deep snow.  My white-faced lamb decides to be especially stubborn and lay down.  “Come on, please!”  He wrinkles up his nose, as if to say, “I like routine, and this is not routine.  I’m not going anywhere.”

I’m still struggle with coaxing, pushing, teasing, as Mom and Kara head away down the path to the trailer with their charges.  “See, you’re friends are leaving you!”  Then, without warning, the lamb charges up and I’m running behind like a musher, trying to keep up.  Then plop, he lays down again.  “If anyone wants a live nativity scene, they’re going to have to set it up right here because this one’s not going anywhere!”  The wooly beast gives me a disgruntled look, snow sticking to his sides and legs like powdered sugar.  I’m sure that I don’t look much better.

Now it’s time to weigh the lambs, so that we know the sizes that are being sent to the butcher, catalogued by ear tag number.  This involves tucking a sling under the sheep’s belly, with strings attached to the top in loops.  The scale is hanging from the ceiling, with a hook on the bottom with a tough spring to record the weight.  Kara takes the front end, and Mom takes the back, while I’m in charge of hooking the sling to the scale.  It’s amazing, though, how long sheep legs can be, so we have to lift the lamb to the level of our shoulders—a kicking, squiggling, displeased lamb.

“132 pounds” Kara hollers, “Woah!”  The lamb is slipping forward on the scale, front feet touching the floor.  It’s mottled face bug-eyed like “I’m a sheep, I don’t want to fly!”  After rebalancing, we have our number, and gently let the lamb back down to the ground.  The sheep in the pen next door are half-amused, half-upset to be disturbed by this charade.  What happened to their lovely, quiet evening?

Now it’s time to head back to the lamb barn for another round of catching.  This time I’m handed Waldo, the first lamb of the season.  Fat and sassy, Waldo was his mother’s only lamb, which meant he got lots of milk.  I pull and I tug, but he’s not going anywhere.  Oh no, I’ve got two feet, and he’s got four, and he knows it.  “Kara!  He won’t come!”  Kara wrestles her lamb over and ties the harness to the barn door, then trundles back.  Taking the leash, Waldo perks up and follows right along, trot trot.  Guess I wasn’t his favorite human, little tart.

“You know,” Kara comments as we flounder about in the deep snow, sometimes pushing, sometimes pulling.  “I heard this story about how in Asia they’ve had skis longer than anywhere else in the world, and that they would nail horse hide to the bottom for traction up hills.  They skied with one pole and a lasso, which they would use to rope elk.  They’d hang onto the rope, and be dragged through the mountains, until the elk tired and they could kill it for food.  But now, I guess they do this as a sport.”

She shouldn’t have given the sheep any ideas.  Mom’s lamb bolted, “Laura, catch the rope!”  I grab it, one leather glove goes flying, then the sheep swerves to the side and I’m laying on the ground, being pulled across the barnyard with a face full of snow.  “Hold one, I’m coming!”

It was something like three hours later that all 20 lambs were safely tucked into their trailer hotel for the night.  This morning, Kara drove them off to the processor.  It’s a sad day on the farm, but it’s part of the cycle of life.  This way, there will be room for new little ones in the spring.

Do you enjoy lamb?  Grass-fed lamb is delicious and rather close to venison.  Unfortunately, the American palate was turned away from “lamb” during WWII when servicemen were fed copious amounts of mutton.  But you can be an adventuresome locavore and give lamb a second chance with this delicious holiday recipe.

Holiday Lamb Meat Balls with Yogurt

1 pound ground lamb

1/4 cup finely chopped white onion

1 Tbs. finely chopped fresh mint (or 1 tsp. dried)

1 Tbs. finely chopped fresh cilantro (or 1 tsp. dried)

1 garlic clove, finely chopped

1 tsp. ground coriander

Salt to taste

1/2 tsp. ground cumin

1/4 tsp. cinnamon

1/4 tsp. fresh ground black pepper

For the yogurt

7 ounces whole milk Greek yogurt

2 tsp. finely chopped fresh cilantro (or 2/3 tsp. dried)

2 tsp. finely chopped fresh mint (or 2/3 tsp. dried)

1 tsp. ground cumin

Zest of 1 lemon, minced

Heat oven to 375 degrees, with wire rack in middle.  Combine all meatball ingredients and mix well with your hands.  Form 30 balls (about 2 tsp. each) and place on a baking sheet.  Bake until they are no longer pink in the middle, about 15 minutes.  Meanwhile, combine all yogurt ingredients in a small bowl.  Keep yogurt chilled until serving (can be prepared in advance).  Lamb makes a delicious and healthy appetizer, especially when baked, because it’s lower in fat!  Enjoy

***

I’m still a bit stiff and sore, but at least that’s one more task to check off the list for this year.  See you down on the farm sometime.

Laura Berlage is a co-owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café. 715-462-3453 www.northstarhomestead.com

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Understanding Sheep

Of all the barnyard critters, sheep seem to be the most easily misunderstood.  Yes, folks will say that goats are liable to eat tin cans (though Linden hasn’t managed this yet…but we haven’t given him a chance either) or that chickens will run around with their heads cut off (we always butcher using confinement cones, which eliminates the running potential), but sheep seem to always get the short end of the appreciation stick.  No, they’re not stupid—they’re just really good at being sheep.

“Silly sheep,” I remember Barbara, one of the hosts during my brief tour of England and Wales, saying to herself as she shook her head at an escaped yearling running along in front of our bus.  It had somehow slipped the fence and was putting every ounce of effort to get back to his friends.  “That’s what the English say about them,” she explained.  “Silly sheep.  Sometimes they climb up so high on the slate shale that they get scared and won’t come down, so they have to be carried off the hill.”

Now, it doesn’t help that sheep (as foragers of grasses and a little grain) find themselves in the lower strata of the hierarchy of predator and prey—where humans and wolves would be at the top.  For sheep, their diet contains very little variation (they like it that way), even though eating and re-chewing what they have already eaten (a slimy substance that is part of the rumination process called “cud”) takes up most of their day.

Being at the bottom of the predator/prey heap means that there are quite a number of other creatures in this world that would be happy to eat sheep.  Even eagles are known to attack lambs, let alone the four-legged hunters.  With so many hungry stalkers everywhere, sheep have learned that the best defense is to flee.  This could mean fleeing from sudden loud noises, the approach of anything unfamiliar, or for other reasons that may escape untrained human perception.  For a sheep, it is better to run and ask questions later.  Last one out is usually the first one caught.  When all else fails, bunch into a tight group and hope you are the one in the middle!

Getting their share of food and staying away from things that are frightening are the two biggest motivators for sheep.  If you find yourself having trouble moving sheep from one area to another, it’s not because the sheep are dumb—it’s because you’re not using the right motivators!  Dash a bit of grain into the trough and in they’ll come.  Use the sheep dog to help herd them in the right direction and they’ll go.

But sometimes there is a conflict of motivators.  When we first started to train our sheep to enter our new dairy parlor to be milked, the ewes were anything but cooperative.  The stanchions are up on a metal grate platform.  On top of the platform was their daily ration of grain (good motivator) but to get there involved climbing onto an apparatus where the sheep could see the ground below (bad motivator—sheep like to be firmly on the ground).  To overcome the bad motivator, we zip-tied cardboard to the bottom and sides of the platform so that the sheep couldn’t see through.  Once they were convinced that the structure was solid and safe after a week or so, we slowly removed the cardboard a piece at a time.  When we started milking this summer, the older ewes taught the younger ladies that all was safe—based on their authoritative experience.  Besides, dinner was in those buckets!

Trying to escape the paddock because the grass is greener on the other side of the fence?  Food motivator!  And, well, can you say that you’ve never desired something you couldn’t have?  To sheep, green grass is better than any chocolate cake with raspberries and ganoche frosting.  It’s simply divine.

The other place where sheep are criticized for being stupid is connected with their fight-or-flight instinct.  When humans take a tumble, our instinct is to put out our hands to break the fall and save our vital organs from a hard impact.  In a way, this makes sense (outer extremities are not as vital as one’s heart or liver) but on the other hand it seems terribly silly given that a shoulder can take a greater hit than a wrist.  Silly humans, why do we stick out our hands and break our wrists when we fall?  We should know better!

For sheep, that moment of panic manifests in bolting forward.  This could be triggered because they pushed their necks under the electric fence for that extra-sweet clump of grass then—pop—as the jolt comes through they charge forward and suddenly find themselves on the other side of the fence.  Oops, that wasn’t supposed to happen. 

Now the rest of the flock is easing away from the fence because the first sheep made a sudden movement and startled them.  Now she is no longer with her group!  She is alone!  She is vulnerable when she is alone!  Something might come out of the woods and eat her!  Can you blame her for being a bit panicked and pacing the fence to find a way back in?  If she touches the fence again, it will bite her.  If she stays where she is, a predator might attack her.  It’s an anxiety-provoking position for anyone.

Sheep do, however, have the propensity for mishaps.  If there is something to get oneself tangled in, trip oneself on, or wedge oneself into, the sheep will find it.  Over the years, we’ve learned to stop and think, “If I were a sheep, could I get stuck or hurt on that?”  With stories of farmers who left round bales of hay in the paddock for their sheep only to find that as they ate the middle the remaining ring of hay collapsed on their wooly friends along with other misadventures, it’s always good to think two steps ahead of the sheep.  With long, knobby legs, it’s easy to get tangled.  Without much depth perception in front (unlike predatory vision, like ours), it’s sometimes hard to judge the true size of any space.

This is true of a time when we were moving a ewe and her lamb from a birthing jug in the south wing of the barn to the center barn with the other ewe and lamb pairs.  Kara was holding the lamb (which the mother usually follows complacently), while I held the pen open.  The ewe wanted to follow her baby, but at the same time she did not want to leave the safety of her jug.  We had her almost to the door when she changed her mind and darted back towards the pen—choosing the most direct route.  This was right between my legs.  I suddenly found myself sprawled over the back of a galloping sheep, legs in the air, arms grasping for any tuft of wool.

“Don’t do that!” Mom yelled as I was carried off and slammed into the sides of the pen.  “I wasn’t trying to,” I moaned as the sheep finally just lay down with me on top.  “The silly sheep must have thought I was taller!”

So next time someone says that sheep are stupid, you can reply that no, they are just really good at being sheep.  Speaking of which, Sweet Pea the miniature sheep and Linden the dwarf goat are down at the Café on pleasant days to greet you!  Maybe they’ll share a few more secrets with you about understanding sheep, if you listen carefully.  See you down on the farm sometime.

Laura Berlage is a co-owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café. 715-462-3453 www.northstarhomestead.com

 
 

You're Kidding

Well, actually right now we’re lambing, but there is a “new kid on the block” at our farm this spring.  And no, I’m not kidding—he’s a goat!

The story really begins with a sheep—Sweet Pea—who was one of a set of triplets born last spring.  While her brothers grew to average size, Sweet Pea stubbornly stayed petite.  This wasn’t because she had little to eat (our Mayterm interns delighted in bottle feeding her after Sweet Pea was rejected by her mother in favor of the boys) or any fault of her own; she just happened to have the genetics to be a “miniature” sheep.

Some breeds of sheep like Babydoll Southdowns are all miniatures.  Proportioned like a standard sheep, they stop growing at about 40 pounds (a size you can still pick up and carry across the barnyard…or at least Kara can).  Many of our mature ewes, on the other hand, top off at 180 pounds.

Sweet Pea is as healthy and perky as ever, but all her sheep friends were so much bigger and bossier than she, so Kara went looking for a suitable companion.  We milk our sheep (instead of cows or goats) to make gelato in the summertime, which can be confusing for some folks who are not intimately acquainted with farm animals.  Goats, sheep—what’s the difference?

In the summertime, we bring a few “celebrity” animals down to Farmstead Creamery & Café for folks to enjoy.  Last year, we featured Wooster the Silver-laced Wyandotte and Clementine the Buff Orpington (whose images are on a myriad of smart phones now).  Sweet Pea would make a wonderful celebrity sheep that could help keep the Café lawn mowed.  But sheep can’t live alone.  That’s how Kara decided to search for a miniature (dwarf) goat.

It was high winter and cold when the little week-old black-and-brown Nigerian Dwarf kid came home in the dog kennel.  Cold and worried, he was one of a litter of four, and his nanny was not going to be able to feed the whole brood.  Met by the sniffs of curious dog noses, the little fellow found a home in a stock tank in our heated basement—a safe and warm place to make a new start.  And he was a talkative fellow, nickering incessantly when he was lonely or hungry!  Even the cat Pumpkin found the newcomer most interesting, perching on a nearby box to have the best view.

With blotchy patches of black, brown, and light tan (called “moon spotting” in goat coloration lingo), his fur reminded us of the bark of the Linden Tree, for which he was named.  With little Linden as the first goat on our farm, we had a few things to learn—and he had quite a few things to explore.

“Let me out!” he would bleat, prancing at the edge of the stock tank.  Kara would pick up his now chunky little body and let him go on the tile floor.  Boing!  His legs shot out in all directions as if struck by electricity.  Linden would bounce off, slightly sideways, across the floor, dancing and prancing with excitement.  Lena the sheep dog would look bewildered, following behind while trying to stay out of the way.

Then Linden discovered the staircase!  Up, up, up, stop, turn around, then down, down, down again.  It made a wonderful game.  Sometimes the back end would get ahead of the front end or Linden would leap right over our little dog Sophie as she snoozed on the doggy pillow.  It was all so much fun, when you’re a goat!

Ah, but then he learned that there was a second staircase leading up to the loft.  Once out of the stock tank, off he’d go up the carpeted stairs, tear around the corner past my instruments, then up the more challenging wooden staircase—with me right after him.

“Linden, no, not up here!  Come back you little rascal!”  Linden had already lived up to his goatly distinctiveness—climbing on the fax machine, consuming a paper bag, and shredding a cardboard box.  He didn’t need to get into my art supplies!

Then after shearing, the temperatures plummeted.  Little Sweet Pea shivered, too small to stay warm.  So Kara thought it was a good time for the two miniatures to get to know each other.  She carried Sweet Pea into our house and plopped her into the stock tank full of loose hay to warm up.  Linden was ecstatic to have a friend.  But Sweet Pea had a different opinion.  She stamped her foot impertinently and lightly butted the little goat.

Linden cowered and bawled his head off, like the little kid that’s been picked on at the playground.  It wasn’t until some days later that Sweet Pea realized Linden was the only other ruminant in the whole house, so she might as well get used to him.  Now they make quite the comic pair as little Linden still has a bit of growing to do.  But Aunt Sweet Pea was good for him—teaching him to eat grain and hay “like big folks do.”

The weather continued to stay cold.  Prospective summer interns came to visit the farm, some even returning for repeat tours.  We trudged through the snow, visiting all the animals.  “I want to see Linden again!” Missy nearly bounced with eagerness.  “Wouldn’t they let me have a little goat in the dorm room?  He’d be nice and quiet.”

“Yeah, until you went to class, then he’d cry,” Sanora laughed.  “Then what.”

“Then I’d just say it was you in there making all the noise!  Besides, they have their goat in their house.”

We turned the corner down to the walkout basement.  “Not that this is the permanent location,” I smiled.  “It’s just until things warm up enough that the two can live in the barn together until summer.”

“Well, you weren’t kidding, the goat is in the house!” Andrew, a senior, chuckles as we walk inside.  I pick up pudgy little Linden and Missy is the first to want to hold him.  The little stinker doesn’t mind a bit, eagerly sucking on an offered finger.  Spoiled little thing—don’t have to worry much about him being well socialized!

Stowed away in our garage is a little shelter Kara has built for the pair, so they can greet visitors at Farmstead Creamery & Café this summer.  So if you’re wondering about the difference between a sheep and a goat, this quirky pair will be happy to illustrate with their unique character traits.  Watch out, though, that Linden doesn’t eat your hat.  See you down on the farm sometime.

Laura Berlage is a co-owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café. 715-462-3453 www.northstarhomestead.com

 

 
 

Shear, Sheared, Shorn

It’s that time of year, with lambs just around the corner.  The great wooly beasts are corralled in the corner of the barn, waiting for the approaching rumble of Chris’ truck to signal the beginning of shearing season.  The enormous sacks for the wool are hauled from the blue truck’s back end and set up on a stand, the cables are hooked securely out of sheep reach, and the whir of the double-bladed shears begins.

I’ve witnessed a variety of shearings over the years.  One involved a llama, which had to be tied with the two front legs stretched one direction and the back two stretched another.  One fellow’s sole responsibility was to hold to the head with a towel (apparently to retain the notorious llama spit).  But sheep have the unique characteristic of becoming amazingly docile when set back on their rump—at least most of the time.

There still is the occasional wriggler and squiggler and kicking of legs, but this doesn’t seem to faze Chris, who wields the shears with deftness only years of experience can bring.  First a long, blind cut right up the sheep’s neck with her head stretched back, and then the coat is gracefully pealed away to reveal a slightly pink and rather pregnant creature below.

The tradition of shearing sheep for their wool is probably older than recorded history.  Originally, this was accomplished using hand clippers with a curved handle that acts as a spring to bring the two teeth apart after each cut.  Some cultures continue to use this practice, which is valued by spinners for producing fibers without the dreaded “second cut”—e.g. short lengths of fibers created by the electric shears going back to clean up an area on the sheep.  The tedium of hand clipping a fleece maintains fibers of equal, long length, which are supposedly less likely to pill when made into garments.

Shearing sheep in the spring is also part of the animal’s health maintenance.  The wool grown all summer and autumn keeps them warm and dry through the winter.  But this same wool can become soiled during lambing and makes it difficult for the little lambs to find their mother’s udder when still wobbly and new to the world.  All clipped and pretty, the mothers are ready for proper care of their lambs and the warmth of the coming springtime.

Some ancient varieties of sheep would shed their coats (and there are a few heritage breeds that still do), which meant that harvesting the wool crop included copious amounts of walking to pick tufts from thorn and briar growing in the pastures.  Shearing meant that more of the crop stayed with the farmer (and less with the birds for nests)—a selection process not unlike the story behind early grains.  While wild grain seeds fall to the ground in autumn to replant, humans selected grains that held their seed heads tight because these were far easier to harvest methodically and therefore were the genetics planted in the spring.

There was a time when saving all that wool was vitally important.  During the Civil War, the Merino breed of sheep was favored for is extra layers of skin around the neck that folded and flopped over the brisket.  While it was not the most tidy-looking sheep, more skin meant more wool for soldiers’ uniforms.  And during medieval times, when the Bubonic Plague left Europe with a little more than half its previous population, the labor shortage was compensated by turning the land from grain production to pastures for sheep.  Not only did it require fewer farmers to tend a flock of sheep than fields of wheat or barley, but it was also a time when wool was king.

From long trailing gown to tapestries, most households spent more on fabrics yearly than any other commodity (including food!) in medieval times.  England had a bustling trade of exporting raw wool to Flanders (now present-day Belgium), where early mills turned the fibers into everything from sumptuous trappings for castle and hall to everyday cloth for those who worked.  It was a lord’s responsibility to give (as partial payment of services) a new set of clothes to each of his servants yearly.

Unfortunately, wool is not held in as nearly high esteem as it was in days past.  Synthetics, polar fleece, and other fibers entice us more than traditional and often itchy wool—even though wool can be saturated up to 30% with water and still be insulative.  It also seems a terrible paradox that farmers should receive pittance for their wool (some sheep raisers consider it a bother and an expense rather than a valued crop) and yet wool garments should be so expensive!  Someday, we’ll find a more creative way to use our fleece than to sell most of it to the shearer to pay for his services.  I even hear that in Australia, they have figured a way to make house insulation using wool that has a wonderful R-value.  It would also be a very green product!

In the meantime, our ewe Mascara is let back up onto her feet after having her beautiful 10-pound coat unceremoniously shorn from her back.  She staggers a moment, shakes herself, baas, and then runs back to her friends through the open gate.  Shearing is yet another sign on the farm that the year is turning towards spring.  Soon there will be frolicking lambs, baby chicks, little seedlings, and the world will break from the gray and white and once again be green.

Kara wraps her arms around Adelaide and Chris sets her down on her rump.  The shears buzz, and Mascara’s coat is hauled up the ladder and stuffed into the great burlap sack with the others.  It’s hard, rough work, and Chris is bent over near double most of the day.  Mom and Kara work quickly to catch sheep or lead sheep to the second pen, whisking freed coats to the side and out of the way.  Like many tasks in farming, it carries a rhythm and orchestration of movement and sound, with little need for talk.

In the end, two great bags filled with wool are stuffed into the back end of Chris’ blue truck, and everyone feels that sitting down is a marvelous idea.  The sheep, which look hilariously like goats at the moment, are happy the ordeal is over, and the humans are glad to come warm themselves by the wood stove.  The day-long affair is complete, marking a new phase in the shepherding season.  Spring is coming, the days are lengthening, the snow is dripping, and the sheep are shorn.  See you down at the farm sometime.

Laura Berlage is a co-owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café.  northstarhomestead.com

 

 
 

You're Milking What?

All good stories start “a long time ago…” which, when you’re a mature 23 years of age, eight years of hard work, study, and dedication seems like one of those legendary ages.  And, just like many of those great epic journeys, it starts in a very different place than it ends.  This is because our voyage into dairy sheep (oops, am I giving it away?) started with alpacas…or the lack thereof.

While my foray into farming began with the feathered dinosaurs we commonly call chickens, my sister Kara’s passion for animals great and small began with a yearning for alpacas.  She was learning to spin and knit, and alpaca fleece is treasured for being hypoallergenic, incredibly soft, and amazingly warm.  These long-legged camelids—which are often shorn leaving fluffy heads and legs—are gentler cousins of llamas and originate in South and Central America.  However, just as the yearning for parakeets and cockatoos never quite manifested into reality, the interest in expensive alpacas was channeled into a different route.

We were new members of 4-H at the time, working on projects in fiber arts, bees, and…here it comes:  sheep.  The $2,000 to $10,000 a piece alpaca pair was reborn as a-$60 a-piece couple of sheep.  Kara’s first wooly companions were a young ewe (said “you”) named Sweet and a whether (neutered male) named Heart—an inseparable and friendly pair.  Sweet, a purebred Hampshire sheep, gave many sets of triplet lambs as our adventures grew into embracing the ovine birthing process.  With the aid of a growing personal library and Mom’s medical skills as a physician, Kara’s veterinary talents blossomed.  This last spring, the entire south wing of the restored 1919 barn served as the nursery, with numbered birthing pens called “jugs” accompanied by detailed records of age, weight, vaccinations, and tagging.   We call it “the maternity ward.”

With sheep come many adventures, like learning to bale hay with put-put 1940’s equipment (little squares, no kicker…if you’ve made hay, you know what I’m talking about).  There’s shearing time when all the thick, wooly coats come off, leaving slim goat-shaped creatures that look at you like “What?”  And there’s the occasional Houdini sheep who loves to escape from the fence and go on little adventures to the flower beds and other such interesting places.  Oh, sorry Grandma, I guess we weren’t supposed to tell you about that one…

But sheep are not goats.  Not that I have anything against goats, but let’s be clear.  Over the last year, I’ve been plagued by folks who don’t know the difference between a sheep and a goat.  So here’s a little lesson to put you in the know, and maybe it will be useful at your next cocktail party…who knows?  Sheep and goats and cows are in a special family of mammals called ruminants.  This name comes from the fact that they have multiple stomachs (usually four) to help them digest more of the nutrients in grasses.  Pigs and horses only have one stomach, like people.  The rumen process makes these particular animals extremely efficient in pasturing systems because grassy “fodder” is exactly the type of food their unique biology has developed to eat.  Goats are excellent foragers of stalky and brushy material, making them excellent for hilly and mountainous areas that are difficult to hay.  Sheep love flat or rolling countryside and lush grass mixed with clovers.  A well-maintained sheep pasture looks very much like a golf course—only minus the chemicals and the motorized lawn mowers.

Also, sheep are actually more closely related to deer than goats.  When I’m asked what lamb tasted like, the closest comparison might be non-gamey venison, rather than liking it to beef.  And, no, a goat is not a female sheep, as I was once informed at a gathering.  A female sheep is a ewe, while the male is a ram.  And, actually, there are more sheep milked worldwide than cows.  What?  Milking sheep?  Really? 

Like all mammals, sheep give milk.  And like all ruminants, they do this via an udder (only this one has two spigots instead of four).  In France, the Lacone sheep is prized for its milk, which is used to make artisan cheeses, while in Germany, the breed of standard is the East Friesian.  Kara grew interested in dairy sheep after attending conferences at the UW Dairy Sheep Research Station in Spooner, the only one of its kind in the U.S.  The cold winters, however, make life difficult for the French and German dairy sheep breeds, so Kara began the arduous process of cross-breeding to mix in hearty English, Welsh, and Finnish stock with the Continental favorites.  In the process, we have had tall sheep, short sheep, black-faced sheep, white-faced sheep, and speckled sheep—all with their own personalities and names.

As the genetic side of the dairy process grew, Kara visited and interned at different dairy sheep farms to learn tips and experience new methodologies.  Through this process, she learned from artisan cheesemakers and studied at the Babcock Institute in Madison to acquire the finer points of ice-cream production.  But, in the end, it was a new, gourmet product that was calling her—gelato.  If you’ve been to Italy, you probably ate your way across the country from one gelateria to the next.  But for those who haven’t made that trek, gelato may be a new phenomenon.  Made fresh, served warmer, and churned with less air in it, gelato is a creamy and heavenly treat that surprises your taste buds with its bounty of flavor.  Also, ice cream is made with a butterfat content between 12 and 16 percent, while gelato is made with a butterfat content between 6 and 8 percent—which is just how it comes out of the sheep.

To continue her journey, Kara studied with master Italian gelato makers on Long Island through the Gelato and Pastry Institute of America, where she developed a recipe to make her own gelato base from scratch (instead of buying a pre-made base).  In her newly-completed dairy plant at Farmstead Creamery & Café, Kara whirs about like a master artist in her studio—blending hand-crafted chocolate paste, nut butters, or Bayfield blueberries to make richly rewarding waves of creamy gelato.  Every scoop is a work of art.

From the gentle pastures on our family’s farm, to the softly bleating ewes coming out of the parlor, to the frothy white milk in the old-style can, and finally the swirled gelato in your home-made waffle cone, this truly is an epic journey of love and care, passion and dedication to the best of all worlds.  It’s a story that connects you with the people and the place where real food comes from, fresh off the farm.  So next time someone asks you, “They’re milking what out there?” you’ll know a little more of the story.

And, just in case you might have forgotten, it’s sheep, not goats.  See you down at the farm sometime.

Laura Berlage is a co-owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café.  northstarhomestead.com

 
 
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