Milking Sheep at Bonnieview Farm

Photo of Bonnieview Farm Sign

Just over the hill and down the road from where I’m staying here in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom is Bonnieview Farm, a sheep dairy and creamery. An expansive 470 acres, it’s been in Craftsbury’s Urie family now for five generations. Sheep farmer and homestead cheesemaker Neil Urie bought the farm from his uncle in 1995 and converted it from a cow to a sheep dairy a few years later.

Sheep grazing on Bonnieview Farm’s pastures include Laucones, Dorsets, East Fresians and Tunis (or crosses thereof), all chosen for the quality of their milk.

Photo of Bonnieview Farm Sheep on Pasture

Bonnieview is one of a few dairy farms in the Northeast Kingdom that welcome visitors. In fact, Neil and Kristin Urie invite interested people to join in the cheesemaking process for a day, experiencing the process from milking to pressing.

Earlier in the week, I visited the milking parlor at the farm, for a close-up look at the milking process.

Photo of Sheep

Bonnieview Farm currently milks about 150 ewes over a season that runs from May through October. Sheep are not flexible in their breeding season like cows are, so their milking season is short and limited to five months. (Cow dairies vary breeding times throughout the year to assure continuous milk production.) Milk flows at a rate of about five pounds per milking in the spring, but drops off to about two by the end of the season.

Milking takes place two times a day, and takes a couple of hours or more to complete, depending on how well the ewes cooperate in the process. This fact alone is sobering, considering that I can sometimes feel burdened by the responsibility of caring for my two dogs. Somehow, like farmers everywhere, the Uries manage, but the fact that they have one-year-old triplets and a three-year-old daughter as well, make it that much more impressive. Bonnieview Farm does employ four summer interns to help out with chores.

I’d have liked to see farm intern Kyle bringing the sheep in from the pasture, but I missed that step. When I arrived, milking was underway, and the ewes were queued up on a wooden ramp from the barn to the milking parlor, waiting their turn.

Photo of Sheep in Line for Milking

The milking parlor is set up with specialized European sheep milking equipment, and the whole thing was a fascinatingly efficient process to witness. Before the sheep filed in, a measure of grain dropped into each place along the feeding trough. Kyle then pulled a cord to draw up the door from the loading ramp, and a dozen sheep pushed their way onto the platform, falling into line one by one at the feeding trough.

Photo of Sheep Milking Parlor

Photo of Sheep Milking Parlor

Once the ewes were all secured firmly in stanchions, Kyle flipped a switch to slowly move the loaded platform back to the railing before him. They didn’t stop munching for a second as they were nudged gently back, shuffling inch by inch into position for milking. After quickly cleaning the teats, he attached teat cups to six of the twelve—all while they contentedly munched grain at the trough.

Ewes only have two udders each, so each milking station is equipped with one pair of teat cups. Two rounds of milking, with a few interruptions to fix kicked off teat cups, and the twelve ewes were shown the open door down another wooden ramp to the barnyard, each a few pounds lighter.

Photo of Sheep Milking

The milk is held in a refrigerated, mobile milk tank until the next cheesemaking day, when it is brought down the driveway to the cheesehouse. At Bonnieview Farm, cheese is made each Monday and Friday.

Sheep milk is rich and has a higher proportion of solids, compared to both cow and goat milk. At the start of the milking season, it has a butterfat content of about 5.5 percent, which increases to about 7 percent by the end of the season. Compare that to 3.3 percent butterfat of cow milk and 4.1 percent butterfat of goat milk. It’s also higher in protein and minerals. Cow milk contains about 12 percent overall solids, and goat milk just under 13 percent. Sheep milk contains 19.3 percent solids, resulting in high yields in the cheesemaking process.

I was quick to jump to the conclusion that the economics of sheep cheesemaking must, therefore, be significantly better than that of either cow or goat cheesemaking. Not so.

After spending some time with Neil Urie, I understand that the complexities of farming, the risks inherent with raising animals (like the coyotes I hear barking nearby most evenings) and sustaining them through the Northeast Kingdom’s harsh winters, and the short milking season all make this not so. A tremendous amount of care goes into the entire process of caring for the animals, spring lambing, rotating pastures, milking and cheesemaking. No corners are cut at Bonnieview Farm.

Like so many other farming operations, running a sheep dairy is not an easy way to make a living. Although successful by most objective outside measures, Urie continues to fine tune his processes as well as diversify farm income in several other ways. He’s even considering reintroducing a few dairy cows to the farm next year, to provide a year-round source of milk for a new line of cheeses.

I left with a new respect for dairy farmers of any kind; the unending cycle of milking, along with all the other chores associated with caring for a large flock of living animals requires dedication that most of us don’t know in our daily routines, and never will.

In my next post, I’ll describe my Friday in the cheese house, making Bonnieview Farm Coomersdale and Ben Nevis cheeses.

5 responses

  1. Can you drink this milk or is it just for cheese making? Sounds like a fun day – milk is my favorite drink!

  2. Hope that you are able to give JBD the opportunity to milk, drink and eat!!!! Can’t wait to hear more stories!

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