Artisanal Sheep Cheese: Shepherds Manor Creamery Part 1 of 2
Getting to Know a Maryland Sheep Creamery
Reading Time: 8 minutes
By Jacqueline Harp
The artisanal sheep cheese from Shepherds Manor Creamery is what makes this creamery stand out with its award-winning, product — 100% sheep milk cheese.
In today’s food marketplace, a major catchphrase is “dairy alternative.” In reality, this refers mostly to cow milk as the “dairy” for which people are seeking an alternative. Food intolerances of many kinds are on the rise, and difficulties with digesting cow milk have led people to look for suitable replacements. The list of milk-like substitutes for cow milk is long: goat milk, soy milk, almond milk, cashew milk, oat milk, hemp milk, macadamia nut milk, even camel milk.
The Shepherds Manor Creamery is entering into this growing trend and is the first and only artisanal sheep cheese dairy in Maryland. Its sheep milk cheese is borne of hard work and integrity and sourced completely on-farm. For Colleen and Michael Histon, the dedicated husband-and-wife team who own Shepherds Manor Creamery, it’s all about the sheep! Well-cared-for and properly fed sheep, paired with superb cheesemaking are the key ingredients in the success of their cheeses. Let’s take a look at how their uncompromising passion for their animals and their products has resulted in this wonderful sheep dairy operation.
Shepherds Manor Creamery sits on 22 acres in the charming countryside of New Windsor, Maryland, located about an hour-and-a-half from Washington, D.C. The farm name comes from the fact that both Colleen and Michael are the shepherds who care for the flocks, own and operate the creamery, and live in a manor house that was built sometime in the 1800s.
The creamery is a shift in focus for the family, who started with sheep in 4-H with their two children and raised show lambs for many years. Over a decade ago, the Histons were inspired to research the possibility of starting a sheep dairy making artisanal sheep cheese and those dreams became a reality.
The research that went into this project was extensive, spanning several years. They did a deep-dive into dairy sheep care, creamery operations, cheesemaking, soap- making, and all the regulations that could impact these elements. The work that went into becoming knowledgeable about their business model before moving forward cannot be under-emphasized.
The entire operation is located on 22 acres and includes the living quarters, the sheep barn, and the creamery. Once the property was purchased, it took a year-and-a-half to get their dairy fully operational, including building
a new barn and a new creamery and working through all the regulatory issues. Around the time they began the set-up process, they acquired the dairy herd and were housing them on a different property with non-permanent fencing and housing. The sheep moved to their permanent home in March 2010. The Histons fondly remember March 15, 2011 — the first day of milking in the milking parlor of their new creamery!
In looking back, one major thing Colleen and Michael would have done differently is they would have waited until the infrastructure was complete before purchasing the sheep. It would have been much easier if they did not have to manage the flock and the building projects at the same time.
The creamery is Colleen’s domain and is comprised of the milking parlor, the bulk tank room, the cheesemaking room, the aging room (i.e., the “cheese cave”), and office space. The office space contains a mini-laboratory for milk testing, a shrink-wrap machine, labeler, and other miscellaneous equipment for preparing the artisanal sheep cheese for sale. Animal husbandry is Michael’s focus, and it was very helpful to be able to design a barn to best meet the needs of the flock. The sheep barn has a slanted roof that faces the wind and allows for natural airflow. There is no need for fans, and this minimizes energy use. He notes that it is important to avoid moisture build-up in the barn, for the health of the sheep. The barn is easily cleaned using machines, versus having to muck it out with shovels. There is the potential for installing solar power on the roof of the barn to power the creamery.
The Histons keep careful records on their farm. Ewe health and milk production are their top two data points. Their ideal milk production goal for each ewe is 1,000 pounds of milk per season. Being a seasonal operation allows them to pause from production to analyze the past season. The data helps them make decisions about culling, feed adjustments, and breeding. For example, after spring lambing, ewes with flaws such as small udders or extra teats are culled.
For the 2019 milking season, 100 ewes were milked. Milk production is sparse at first, making it hard to get solid statistics, and it takes time to bring the flock to 100% production. At the height of the lactation season, when all the ewes are finally in production, the ewes are milked twice a day and will produce anywhere between three and a half to four pounds
of milk at each milking. By the end of the lactation season, the ewes are milked once a day and production drops to about a pound.
Colleen and Michael: “There are others in the industry who do things differently, such as giving drugs to their sheep to improve production. We don’t do that, because we want our ewes to speak for themselves when it comes to output. It is our firm belief that if you run an animal too hard, it is going to cut their lifespan short. That is not what we want.”
Mixed Breed Dairy Ewes
The farm’s original starter flock consisted of purebred East Friesians. Now, however, 130 East Friesian-Lacaune mixed breed ewes graze the pastures at Shepherds Manor Creamery.
The East Friesians produce a high volume of milk. The Lacaune produce milk with a high percentage of butterfat, but nowhere near the volume of East Friesians. Butterfat is key to cheesemaking. The higher the fat content, the more cheese that is produced with less waste. The Histons reasoned that crossing the two breeds might bring about a blend of the desired traits: high butterfat and increased volume.
The resulting crossbreeds have met these expectations. Having a purebred dairy flock just for its own sake has never been a goal for the creamery; rather, the goal is having healthy, well-treated ewes who have above-average milk production and longevity.
Food for the Dairy Ewe
The learning curve for feeding dairy ewes has been huge. Although the Histons have experience with non-dairy sheep, the nutritional demands for dairy sheep are vastly different. In order to achieve top yields of milk per head, dairy sheep require huge amounts of protein. Lactating ewes need about 27% protein, which is achieved by feeding the ewes alfalfa hay and supplementary grains. Alfalfa hay is a critical element of the feeding program.
Grains are used to entice the ewes into the milking parlor, as well as to provide the balance of the ewe’s nutritional needs. They aim for a mixture of non-genetically-modified (non-GMO) grains comprised of corn, barley, molasses, brewer’s grain, soybean, soybean meal, and premade sheep mineral. Minerals formulated specifically for dairy sheep have only recently become available and are a welcome addition. People who buy artisanal sheep cheese demand non-GMO feed. Michael feels fortunate to be able to source these non-GMO grains from the local Amish communities.
Finding the right mill to process the grains presents several challenges unique to sheep dairying. Price and availability are, of course, obvious factors.
The non-obvious but overarching concern is the regulatory requirement that the feed is completely free of antibiotics. How this comes into play can be illustrated by their choosing to use a costlier, smaller mill that is antibiotic-free over the less-expensive, larger mills in the area that are not antibiotic-free. The residue can find its way into the Histons’ grain mix, and then into the ewes’ milk. Colleen tests the milk for antibiotic contamination on a daily basis. The test is extremely sensitive, detecting the slightest amount of antibiotics.
Even though the potential antibiotic residue from another farm’s custom mix is essentially a false positive, if found in the milk, the entire day’s batch must be discarded, per the rules.
With supplementary hay and grains providing the bulk of the nutritional needs for the flock all year round, the sheep do not have to rely on pasture. The sheep, however, are by no means confined to a barn or feedlot. The farm boasts 12 acres of well-maintained, fenced pastures, and the sheep are allowed to frolic and graze to their hearts’ content. Customers want to know that the sheep have free access to quality pastures. The Histons are happy to provide the ewes with just that, which makes for happy sheep!
For the past decade, a gelded llama named Hunter has faithfully served as the livestock guardian. What they like most about the guard llama is that he does everything with the sheep, he eats the same feed, and simply blends in. He has successfully handled attacks from raccoons, lone coyotes, and feral cats.
Colleen discovered that Hunter’s soft, silky wool is quite marketable. Hunter’s fleece has been mill-processed into yarn and has garnered quite a few fans at the farmers markets. The proceeds from Hunter’s yarn chips in towards his care.
The Histons plan well in advance to make sure that the bulk of the lambing and shearing starts in the middle of January and ends in early March. They have tried for earlier lambing, but the hot climate renders the rams temporarily sterile if they try too early in the fall. Two to three rams are maintained on-farm, to keep genetics fresh, while providing adequate back-up.
Bottle lambs are a rare occurrence, but Michael and Colleen are ready to care for them should the need arise. If a mother ewe loses a lamb, Michael will hand-milk that ewe until the parlor is open, where the ewes are milked by machine.
The lambs stay with their mothers until they are weaned at 30 days and weigh between 40 to 75 pounds. Any lambs not kept as replacement stock are sent to a local auction house. Interestingly, for the past two lambing seasons, they sold their extra lambs to the University of Maryland’s Western Maryland Research & Education Center, headed by Susan Schoenian, Sheep and Goat Specialist, and author of Sheep 101 and Sheep 201.
They offer farm tours by appointment, for a per-person fee, including during lambing season. A typical visit is 20 to 30 minutes long and starts by giving people a pair of disposable booties for biosecurity. The tour starts in the dairy building to avoid cross-contamination of the cheesemaking area from the live animals. The Histons explain the cheesemaking process, room by room, and answer all questions. Then the group spends time with the ewes; people always treasure this experience. The tour ends with samples of all the cheeses. People often buy cheeses to take home.
Not only do these tours provide a good boost to farm income, but they also contribute to the reputation of the farm as well as serve an educational purpose. While the internet provides a lot of content on cheesemaking in general, nothing compares to actually seeing and experiencing artisanal sheep cheese making firsthand. The impression made is substantial and lasting. The typical person touring the farm is not a typical person when it comes to food choices. More often than not, they are serious “foodies,”
who are extremely knowledgeable about food. Meeting people who care so much about food and where it comes from, is very encouraging to the Histons, as well.
The Histons also offer a paid internship program on their farm, but they do not provide housing. The interns learn the ins and outs of the milking parlor. Interns can also help out at the farmers market. If they show a high level of interest and initiative, they can work directly with Colleen in milk handling.
Be sure to catch Part 2 of Artisanal Sheep Cheese from Shepherds Manor Creamery in the May/June 2021 issue.
Originally published in the March/April 2021 issue of Countryside & Small Stock Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.