Sheep people from across the continent gathered this past weekend at the 16th annual Great Lakes Dairy Sheep Symposium, the major annual event of the dairy sheep industry in North America. Every year, the event is held in a different location, and this year, lucky for us Wisconsinites, it was hosted in Eau Claire.

The event attracts dairy sheep producers and cheesemakers from Canada, Mexico and more than 20 U.S. states, from California to Alabama to Vermont. In a sign that the American dairy sheep industry is rapidly growing, the conference hosted a record number of 130+ attendees.

Looking around the room during Friday seminars was like looking at a regular who’s who of American artisanal cheesemakers. Sitting to my left was Cindy Callahan, founder of Bellwether Farms in California. To my right were Tom & Nancy Clark, of Old Chatham Sheepherding Company in New York. Ahead of me was Pat Elliott, of Everona Dairy in Virginia, and leading a seminar on sheep milk for cheesemaking was Bob Wills, of Cedar Grove Cheese in Plain, Wis.

After two days of seminars, which featured presentations by innovative producers and top scientists from all over the world, including Master Cheesemaker Ivan Larcher from France, Saturday was tour day – yay! Two school buses of sheep people (and me, with my camera & notebook) motored to Spooner Agricultural Research Station, the oldest continuing research facility in the University of Wisconsin system.

Our tour guides at Spooner were none other than the venerable Dave Thomas, professor of animal sciences at UW-Madison, Yves Berger, Sheep Researcher, Phil Holman, Superintendent, Scott Butterfield, Animal Research technician, and Ann Stellrecht, lead milker.

The Spooner station is one of the only dairy research stations in North America, and is home to about 300 ewes of various breeds. Current research is focused on dairy sheep, especially the genetic improvement of dairy sheep and production of sheep milk for processing into cheese. Other research examines the impact of grain supplementation level on milk production while summer grazing and the effect of ewe lamb feeding level on future milk production.

After a 90-minute tour of the facility, we loaded the buses again and were off to Shepherd’s Ridge Creamery, where Jeff & Vicky Simpkins milk 115 ewes and farm 160 acres. The farmstead creamery has been seven years in the making, and after three years of cheesemaking (Jeff says the first year’s cheese was terrible, the second year’s cheese was edible, and this year’s cheese is actually pretty good), 2010 marks the first year the creamery has offered cheese for sale (see this September blog post about their awesome Oliver’s Reserve).

Jeff provided us a tour of the sheep barn and the milking parlor, while Vicky showed us the creamery and cheese room. Her 100-gallon vat looks miniature compared to most standard cheesemaking vats, but it’s just the right size for Vicky. She stirs the curd by hand – there’s no agitator in sight – and crafts several different raw-milk, hard sheep’s milk cheeses, which are aged in one of the prettiest caves I’ve ever seen.

Located right on the farm, the underground caves feature three distinct aging rooms, with handcrafted wooden doors, arches, a stone-lined entrance, and beautiful wheels of sheep’s milk cheeses gracefully aging on wooden planks.

While I was entranced by the sheep, the caves, the cheeses and the four inches of snow falling to the ground, my daughter, meanwhile, was making friends with the Shepherd’s Ridge farm cats. This one – pictured to the right – would have easily gone home with us, but, alas, mom said no. Thanks to everyone at the Dairy Sheep Symposium for letting me attend your conference as a sheep tourist and learning more about American dairy sheep.