Milking Sheep

I love Manchego cheese!  When I first decided to raise sheep I wanted a breed that could produce enough milk so I could make wheels and wheels of Manchego cheese.  My research into the cheese led me to information on Spanish sheep breeds that cannot be imported into the US.  But it also led me to the Navajo-Churro breed of sheep whose ancestors came from Spain.  The Navajo-Churro met two other very important requirements for me – that the breed be a heritage breed and that it be suitable to the climate of our farm.  Our flock is now well over 100 Navajo-Churros and we enjoy the lamb meat and their wool every year.  But farm and other work requirements have prevented me from taking up milking….until now!

In early December we had a ewe that lost her lamb quite unexpectedly.  It appeared healthy and very large and robust but died within 24 hours of birth.  The ewe has a large udder so I decided to try milking her to see how I liked being tied to a twice a day milk schedule.  She was not too thrilled with the idea at first but we settled on a “trade grain for milk” barter system and she now allows me to milk her for as long as her small cup of grain holds out.  (After that she does her best impression of a rodeo bucking sheep.)  To my suprise she is giving me almost a quart of fresh milk a day.

We have been making all types of cheese and yogurt and I am quite hooked on the whole process.  Sheeps milk is incredibly rich and creamy.  I find it a bit sweeter than cows milk and with no gamey taste.  It makes abundant cheese and the yogurt is thick and tangy like a Greek yogurt. 

I am in the process of trying to convince other ewes that have babies to share a little bit of milk everyday.  They would only get milked once a day so their baby could stay with them.  The ewes I have been recruiting have all had twins in the past – so can support more than one baby – but only have one lamb this time.  They are, however, very reluctant to give up a drop of milk.  It’s suprising they can hold back as completely as they can.  I have even tried holding their baby next to me so they can see and smell it but they are not fooled.  Sheep may not be the sharpest tools in the shed but they can spot a ruse.


Navajo-Churro Sheep on NPR

NPR did a story on Navajo-Churro sheep and the endangered cultures that depended on them. 

Sacred Sheep Revive Navajo Tradition, For Now

For as long as anyone can remember, Churro sheep have been central to Navajo life and spirituality, yet the animal was nearly exterminated in modern times by outside forces who deemed it an inferior breed. Now, on a Navajo reservation of northern Arizona and New Mexico, the Churro is being shepherded back to health.  Read More

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Free Range Cornish Cross – Not an Urban Legend

After a rough start it appears that the Cornish Cross chicks are going to take advantage of their free range lifestyle.  When we first put them in the front yard they just stayed in one spot and hid in the shade.  Now they are cruising around the entire house – not quickly mind you – but they do get there.  It helps that they have a boyfriend to guide them.  The Cornish Cross have all turned out to be hens and my California Leghorn rooster – Foghorn Leghorn – has taken a liking to them.  He escorts them all over the yard and has really encouraged them to venture out.  I guess the babies are growing up.

Los tres pollo

We are down to three plus Carin – Carin continues to do very well with her “hen” Moms.  She is too heavy to fly but she does engage in all other normal chicken activities including rooting, digging, dust baths, and re-organizing all the equipment on my shelves. 

The other three cornish cross were ousted from their flight pen by the other chickens.  They were so slow and so docile that the other chicks their same age could eat their feathers (and a little flesh) without so much as a movement.  I was afraid I was going to lose them like Mongo so they are now in the front yard.  They run loose during the day with the puppies and turkeys and are in a secure pen at night.

At about 14 weeks these birds are VERY large and have outgrown their genetic capabilities.  They cannot fly or get any lift at all.  One of them can only hobble to food or water with a kind of stilted gait that reminds you of a pirate with a wooden leg.  But despite their physical limitations they enjoy things like dust baths and are having a good time in the front yard.  They are getting very tame though.  Jimmy has to watch out to make sure they don’t become pets.

Mongo Died

It is with a heavy heart that I have to report that Mongo died.  She was in the flight pen with the other chickens but not taking advantage of her space and not getting much exercise.  Her “insides” kept growing and growing and stretching her skin.  This made it appealing to the other chicks to pick off her feathers and peck at her skin.  They succeeded in creating a few small holes in Mongo’s abdominal cavity and she died within 24 hours. 

The size Mongo was at her death was very abnormal for a chicken.  Her innards protruded off her back end like a middle aged man’s beer belly.  She probably would have been considered the ideal commercial meat bird – fast weight gainer.  I feel sad that we breed birds to grow up like Mongo for fast weight gain and an early death.

Mongo compared with Carin

Mongo and Carin are the same age but they are living vastly different lives.  Carin lives with her “mom” hens and siblings and spends a lot of time searching for worms and grain.  Despite having free choice high protein food available at all times she eats a wide variety of things and prefers to scratch and peck for a worm than sitting down by the feeder and chowing down.  As a result she is pretty fit for a Cornish Cross chick and looks almost “normal”.

The picture above is Carin and the one to the right is Carin with her “Mom” Mavis the Turkey.  They are looking for bugs and worms.

And then there is Mongo – who so fits her name!  She is huge and lumbering.  She is in a very large flight pen now so has plenty of exercise, sunlight, and time to scratch and peck.  She tends to eat a lot from the free choice feeder and I think that is what is making her grow so large.  But I also realized that Carin eats more corn than Mongo so am trying to transition Mongo’s diet to include more corn to see if that will keep her more slim.

As you can see from the picture above Mongo is larger and less balanced than Carin.  When you pick her up its like picking up a ball rather than a chicken.  But even though she is large and out of proportion she is still in pretty good shape compared to one of the other Cornish chicks.  The chick below lacks any muscle tone and is very sparse in her feathering.  She has trouble getting around and just eats all day.  I guess this is good for commercial poultry operations but I can’t help but feel sorry for her as the other chicks fly and run and play around her.

This experiment is interesting and depressing at the same time.  It appears that genetics, environment, and food all factor into the health of these chicks.  But seeing how these factors can be manipulated to optimize weight production is really depressing to me.  I prefer to see chicks living happy chicken lives.