Shearing Sheep at Hidden Springs Creamery

Welcome to spring in Wisconsin, when thousands of sheep lose their winter coat in favor of a new, naked spring wardrobe. This week, I was lucky enough to “help” – and I do use the term “help” loosely – sheer 450 sheep at Hidden Springs Creamery, a dairy sheep farm near Westby.

Farmstead cheesemaker Brenda Jensen and her husband, Dean, are increasing their flock in an attempt to make award-winning sheep’s milk cheeses year-round (Brenda’s Ocooch Mountain, a six-month aged nutty tomme was recently named to the U.S. Championship Cheese Contest’s top 16 cheeses, out of 1,702 entries). Typically, their sheep would have been shorn in early March, but because Wisconsin seems to have forgotten it’s spring, they held off shearing until warmer weather.

First of all, let me say shearing sheep is serious business. At Hidden Springs Creamery, a three-man contract crew arrived bright and early Monday morning to set up three electric shearing stations in the Jensen’s hay shed/sheep loafing barn.

Once the stations were set up, the men did pre-shearing exercises to limber up their backs. After all, shearing a sheep takes between two and five minutes, of which the shearer is bending at the waist the entire time.

Going in, I was a little afraid shearing sheep might be a bit traumatic for both me AND the sheep. I had visions of “ringing pigs” as a kid, holding squirming, squealing piglets while my dad pierced their noses (we pastured our pigs and having a ring in their nose kept them from rooting and escaping under fences. Despite my protests, my dad assured me it was worth 3 seconds of pain for the pig to be able to live its life outside instead of in a crate, and as an adult I now have to agree with him).

Turns out, I worried for nothing. Because once limbered up, the sheep shearers chose a sheep from the pen, herded it onto their wooden board, and very simply and matter-of-factly, turned the sheep onto its back.

Yes, you read that correctly. Sheep are lifted up and turned onto their back, so that all four of their feet are sticking up in the air. I knew sheep were stupid, but I didn’t realize they (thankfully) were stupid enough to allow this to happen without so much as squirming or even making noise. In fact, sheep look fairly bored during the entire process. Simply unbelievable. Here’s a look at shearing a sheep:

First, the sheep is turned onto its back and the shearer works on the belly. This wool is kept separately, as it’s not nearly as valuable as the overall fleece. The picture below is the typical look of a sheep during this process, as it lays there, listless. You have a feeling she’s thinking: “I wonder what’s for dinner?”

Next, the sheep is rolled onto its side, with its head between the shearer’s legs, and then sheared on both sides. The goal is to remove the entire fleece in one piece. David, the lead shearer, averaged just under 2 minutes a sheep. A good shearer prides himself in doing it under four. David is a master.

When finished, the sheep is unhanded and allowed to get up and walk away. Most, like this one, however, continue to just sit there until the shearer scoots it outside. Yes, these are pretty wild animals.

After the sheep is persuaded to actually leave the shearing board, the helpers pick up the fleece.

Then it’s off to the super huge sacks, where the helpers stuff the fleece. Like this:

And here it is in action – fleece is heavier than it looks:

Occasionally, sheep shearers change blades or adjust the setting on the shearing device, which looks like this:

And when shearers are done with one sheep, they do another. And another. Until they’re done.

So to recap, here’s a “before” picture:

And here’s an “after” shot:

You almost get the feeling this sheep is posing for the camera, don’t you?

Throughout the entire process, I kept thinking I had seen something like this before. And then I remembered: I have a cat who thinks it’s a sheep.

Look familiar?

Many thanks to the expert sheep shearing crew and Brenda & Dean Jensen for letting me be part of 2013 sheep shearing at Hidden Springs Creamery!

All photos copyright Uriah Carpenter, 2013

Birthday Sheep

Turning 40 years old isn’t so bad when you’re surrounded by your favorite people, especially when those favorite people happen to live on a sheep dairy and it’s lambing season.

Last Wednesday was my big 4-0, so the hubby and I trekked to Hidden Springs Creamery near Westby to hang out with Dean and Brenda Jensen and their 350 sheep for the day. Brenda had hinted last fall my birthday would conveniently fall during prime lambing season, and really, who doesn’t want to spend their 40th birthday in a barn surrounded by newborn bleating lambs? Hello, dream trip!

We arrived late afternoon, just in time for transporting the 11 lambs born that morning to an Amish neighbor’s farm, as Brenda had run out of clean stalls (this occasionally happens when you have 275 moms giving birth to an average of twins in a 30-day period). Another 75 ewes will lamb in May, giving Brenda a longer milking season, and thus more milk to make cheese later into the season.

How do you transport newborn lambs, you ask? You pick them up from their stalls, carry them to the farm pick-up, carefully place them in tubs in the cab, and carry the extras on your lap. It’s amazing how warm, snuggly and quiet a newborn lamb is – I think the one I was holding in my lap for the 3-mile ride may have actually fallen asleep after it pooped on me.

After returning to the farm, it was time for milking. Greg and Dave are the Jensens’ evening milkers, and they’re pretty good at what they do. Here’s a look at milking sheep:

The Jensens are currently milking about 150 ewes, which takes just a little over an hour in their new double 10 Swedish parlor, a huge improvement over their home-made milking station they used the first five years they were on the farm.

After milking, we took a tour of the lambing facilities. The lambs start their lives in the nursery, born in straw pens, and then are moved to bigger pens as they age. On March 28, most of them will be sold at market – just in time for Easter dinner – and the Jensen farm will be a much quieter place.

The ewes still waiting to give birth, meanwhile, are so fat and fluffy that they look like┬ácaricature sheep – you know, the ones that came with your Little People Play Farm set? They’re all wool, with short stick legs, kind of like this:

The Jensens’ farm is absolutely breathtaking. Situated in the heart of Amish country, it’s all hills, fences and pastures. Their morning milker is an amish neighbor, hence the buggy in the photo.

After morning milking, the evening’s and morning’s milk are combined, gravity fed into a stainless stell tank on wheels, and driven about 40 feet to the farm’s creamery, where it is again gravity-fed into the farm’s cheese plant, where Brenda makes cheese about four days a week. Here’s a glimpse at the milk transportation process:

We didn’t stick around to make cheese with Brenda in the morning – I’ve made cheese with her a couple of times before, once with my daughter, so we said goodbye to the Jensens and rolled down the driveway, although not without saying goodbye to the barn cats and Augustus Burdock Jensen, the farm dog.

Many, many thanks to Brenda and Dean for your hospitality, laughter and kindness in helping me celebrate the big 4-0! It couldn’t have been any better.

Photos by Uriah Carpenter, copyright 2012.

Meet the Cheesemaker in Montreal

Thousands of people trek to the American Cheese Society conference every year to attend the Festival of Cheese, by far the most popular event of the annual shindig. And while I definitely look forward to trying not to get sick by eating 1,600 cheeses, my favorite ACS event instead happened tonight in a much smaller room, attended by far fewer people.

It’s a little thing called Meet the Cheesemaker.

I don’t know why, but I find something absolutely magical in walking around a room, eating cheese from dozens of different companies, and getting to shake hands and talk shop with the man or woman who makes each cheese. Every year, I especially try to seek out new and upcoming cheeses, and this year did not disappoint. A few discoveries of the evening:

Mountina, Vintage Cheese Company, Montana

This washed rind cheese is made by cheesemaker brothers Dwayne and Darryl Heap, both of whom attended tonight’s Meet the Cheesemaker. The pair market their cheese as “an Alpine cheese from the mountains of … Montana.”

The pair have been been making thier Mountina cheese since 2009, but just released a new version called Mocha Mountina, which is washed with coffee and cocoa beans. Surprisingly, the coffee compliments  the natural nutty flavor of the cheese.

The Heaps’ father, a cheesemaker by trade, came up with the coffee and cocoa bean wash recipe before passing last year. Larry Brog, of the famed Swiss cheesemaking family of Star Valley, Wyoming, helped the Heaps perfect the recipe and method. And to tie it all together, Larry’s uncle, Paul, a Swiss immigrant and cheesemaker, trained Dwayne and Darryl’s grandfather to make cheese. It’s a long and winding story, but the cheese is totally worth it.

Shepherd’s Basket, Valley Shepherd Cheese, New Jersey
Eran and Debra Wajswol host between 20,000 and 30,000 tourists at their farm every year. Built as a family destination, agri-tourism site, Valley Shepherd Cheese is making some pretty good cheeses from the milk of their 600 sheep, 30 goats and 20 cows. My favorite is Shepherd’s Basket, a Manchego-style, raw sheep’s milk cheese made in a five-pound wheel with basket-like weave rind.

I’d love to show you a picture of this beauty, but when I asked my hubby to get a shot of it, he instead took a close-up of a cotton-ball sheep with googly eyes sitting on the Valley Shepherd Cheese table. Sigh. So you’ll just have to take my word for it – this cheese is a keeper.

Le Sein d’Helene, La Moutonniere, Quebec, Canada

This cheese was quite popular with the fellows at the Meet the Cheesemaker event, as it is shaped like and named for a woman’s breast. Cheesemaker Lucille Giraux said she created the cheese to represent the mountains of where she lives, and then thought of the name afterward, in honor of her village, Ste. Helene-de Chester in Quebec.

Made from a mixture of sheep and Jersey cow milk, Le Sein d’Helene has a natural rind and is aged between two and four months. It’s sweet and buttery, which makes it the perfect table cheese. If only I could get this in the United States. Sigh.

Espresso Bellavitano, Sartori, Plymouth, Wisconsin
Master Cheesemaker Mike Matucheski has done it again. The wizard behind Sartori’s line of fruity BellaVitano cheeses, the company’s newest offering is Espresso BellaVitano, rubbed with oil and espresso beans and then cured between two and six months, allowing the espresso flavor to work its way through the rind and into the heart of the cheese.

While in Montreal this week, I learned something new about BellaVitano. The cheese was actually inspired by a cheesemaking trip to Italy, where the Sartori cheesemakers tasted Piave, an intense, full-bodied cheese, reminiscent of Parmigiano Reggiano. The team returned to Wisconsin with a mission to make their own style of the same cheese, and voila … BellaVitano was born. In the process, they created an American Original beloved by many.

Thanks to all the cheesemakers to attended tonight’s event – it was awesome to meet each and every one of you!