Counting Sheep and Goats

In the Finger Lakes – A Major Population Boom

story and photos by Laurie Mercer

The Finger Lakes has become the largest sheep-holding region east of the Mississippi River. Raised for meat, milk, yogurt, cheese and wool, flocks are grazing on more small farms these days.

For Matt Kyle of Avon and Dave Galton of Locke, raising sheep is big business. Determined to create healthy, family-based enterprises, both men have made million-dollar investments to meet the demand for trending food.

Counting sheep for three generations

At Kyle Farms, founded by Matt’s parents 40 years ago, there were always a few sheep around, often for 4-H projects. Family photo albums document sheep-focused memories with farm tours and cooperative meetings. Raising sheep even led to a merging of families through marriage.

In the early 1990s, the family ran a Community Supported Agriculture business model, (CSA) connecting directly with customers who valued the lamb they bought from their local neighborhood family farm. Their sheep sausage quickly sold out. “We also tried the public market. We tried everything,” Matt says.

Then in early 2006, partners Matt Kyle, his brother DJ, and their cousin Nathan Hatch went all in and invested nearly $1 million in custom-designed, temperature-controlled, state-of-the-art barns. Ten years later, their ewe count is 3,500 Dorset, Finn, and Ile de France. Male lambs are generally used for meat, and some adult males are kept for breeding purposes. Termed “natural,” sheep from the Kyle Farm are fed alfalfa, silage, corn silage, grain, corn, and soybean meal grown within a 10-mile radius.

Matt’s cell phone rings about as often as you hear a “baa.” In his early 30s with a hearty outdoor look, he had wanted to raise sheep since he was a kid. When he was old enough, he toured New Zealand (a mecca for sheep), to kick start his shearing skills. “The first day I clicked (removed fleece by shearing) 148 sheep, and I was the slowest one,” he recalls. “When I left, I could do 322 a day but I was still last.”

When he returned home he attended Cornell University where he met his wife Shannon, who markets fresh vegetables for her family’s farm in Batavia.      

In 2010 a USDA-approved, climate-controlled barn went up. Two more barns followed. “I said if we are going to go bankrupt we might as well do it now while we’re young,” Matt jokes. “We were either going to keep it under 50 sheep as a hobby or do more than 2,000 to survive. In farming, there really isn’t room for anything in between. At the same time, we can’t lose track of the foundation we’ve built for many years, or our hard-earned reputation for caring and quality. Right now we are totally focused on producing volume and consistency in our lamb, both for its ideal weight for market and its flavor and texture valued by the end users. That’s what the market demands.”

My-T Acres, a 9,000-acre family-run crop and vegetable farm in Batavia, became an angel investor. “We own the sheep and lease the barns from My-T Acres,” explains Matt. “We are so thankful that the Call family went out of their way to help someone else get started in commercial farming.”

Prior to birthing, the ewes – all– are sheared to promote cleanliness and health. While shearing is labor-intensive, the price of wool is low. Luxury wool comes from other breeds. Of the 200 recognized breeds, desirable characteristics address human needs for: meat, milk, cheese, wool and hides. Sheep are also used for medical research because the anatomy of both sheep and human hearts share some similarities.

Kyle Farms lamb is sourced at New York City butcher shops where strong ethnic backgrounds and/or food traditions determine customer preferences.

The Nursery

Each year, hundreds of single, twin, and even triplet lambs arrive in January, March, May, July, September and November. A freelance lamb whisperer, Alecia Williams from Michigan, works seasonally at Kyle Farms to get tiny newborns strong enough to “latch on” to the milk machine filled with replacement formula. It’s a career, emphasizing touch and smell, and she began learning it as a kid.

If there are orphan lambs, their chances of survival are about 50/50, she says. She remembers one lamb that was so tiny she could carry it around in a pouch in her shirt.

With multiple births beyond twins, the smallest are removed for fostering. “Sometimes the ewes might reject the smallest lamb,” she says.

Different colors of plastic tape tied to the gates alerts staff to what’s going on in the pen. Kyle Farms sheep are monitored all day long.  Sheep are watchful and curious and easily disturbed.  Anything strange in their environment can cause them to panic. On being successful with sheep Matt advises, “They know what is going on. Just be calm around them.”

Enhanced curiosity is evident when they are moved to new pasture. Beyond fresh greens, he says, they also enjoy playing. In fact, animal behaviorists call sheep “gregarious.” And they’re self-protective – they can see behind themselves without raising their heads.

The absolute willingness to be herded as a flock without biting or kicking probably led to the early domestication of sheep, producing milk, cheese, meat and for use as pack animals.

There is even a proverbial black sheep amid a predominantly white flock of ewes in Avon. “It happens,” Matt says with a grin.

Kyle Farms’ flocks move around in 1,200 acres of conservation-protected acres. A drive along Nations Road in Geneseo demonstrates how perfectly they fit into the ageless, pastoral landscape reminiscent of the 1800s.

Water comes through pipes from natural springs nearby. Grazing management prevents overgrazing. A sheep’s taste for invasive plants is legendary. Needing little shelter, even in harsh climates, sheep are less expensive to keep than beef.

Talk about farm to table. Matt estimates almost the entire market is specialty groceries and butcher shops, most of them located in New York City. At this point, lamb takes such a small bite out of domestic meat consumption that large, vertically integrated agribusiness ignores them. Sheep still get to live like sheep. 

By re-introducing sheep to the Genesee Valley, Matt and his family are moving forward agriculturally by turning back time in the Finger Lakes.

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Thousands of Sheep and Goats Milked in Locke, Cayuga County

In the farm-to-table movement, you can’t get much closer to delicious worldly cheeses than the Black Sheep Cheese brand, sold on the web and at trendy merchants. The origin story is firmly rooted in the Finger Lakes. Just as there is an occasional black sheep born, Black Sheep Cheese serves the deepening demand for artisan cheese and all-natural yogurt .

It is pricey; sheep and goat milk cost about four times the price of cows’ milk.

Dave Galton is owner/founder of  the state-of-the-art sheep- and goat-milking facility in Locke, and the original developer of Black Sheep Cheese and Yogurt. Varieties include Nancy’s Hudson Valley Camembert, made with sheep, cow, and cream; Ewe’s Blue, a 100-percent sheep-milk cheese reminiscent of Roquefort; and Kinder Creek, 100-percent sheep’s milk. Black Sheep yogurt is naturally thick and not strained, and it pairs well with maple syrup and local cherries

After spending 34 years as a professor in the Department of Animal Science at Cornell University, Dave retired two years ago. “You have to do something,” he explains in a wry sort of way. “I retired to do something different.

“There are not more than 12,000 dairy sheep in this country, and 2,000 of them are right here,” he tells me as he walks through the 56,000-square-foot barns full of sheep and goats. “Until recently most cheese from sheep was imported from France and Italy. Today, Americans want artisan cheese and they want it local. They want to know where it’s coming from. They want the assurance of purity.”

A farm boy who grew up in Nunda, Dave has pleasant, china-blue eyes with a direct gaze designed to keep his students alert. He is worldly wise in all matters dairy, including facts and figures on a global scale.

His milk parlor is nearly identical to that of a modern dairy farm. But unlike dairy cows and beef, which are most often kept in confined areas, and not outdoors on pasture, sheep and goats can go outdoors to graze in 450 grass-filled acres.
Plans are in the works to build the Black Sheep Cheese Creamery in nearby Dalton. They will also age cheese to create hard varieties.

Feta from Bulgaria and Greece, Roquefort of France, Manchego from Spain, and Pecorino Romano and Ricotta from Italy are all traditionally made using sheep’s milk. All of the farm’s goat milk, from Alpine and Saanen goats, is sold directly to Coach Goat Farms in the Hudson Valley. The cheeses are made by artisans in Old Chatam.

Because sheep and goats have two teats, the smaller animals produce less milk than cows. But they also take up less space, need less shelter, and produce a product in which the protein and fat are all digestible.

“Sheep products are definitely a niche,” Dave says. “Millennials are the main customers of trending sheep products. They will pay for it.”

Animal-centric work is exhausting. Mammals demand feeding, watering, cleaning up, fresh bedding, and even help with socialization, breeding, gestation and death. Animals never take a holiday or leave early. Sheep farms attract workers who love animals. Here in the US,  they include foreign born nationals who support families back home, and younger men and women – many college trained – who wear Carhartt overalls, muck boots, and wool caps pulled down for warmth.

Wandering freely outside the pens at Dave’s high-end facility is one lucky, unusually colored ewe who appears to have the run of the place. None too pleased, Dave dismisses it as the caregiver’s pet; he cares not to know its name. Dave is all business, and his business is all about taking excellent care of the animals, so one lucky free-ranging ewe gets to stay in the picture.

So You Want to Be a Sheep-Herding Dog?

All dogs are good at something, even if it’s making mischief. Herding breeds (also called stock and working dogs) breeds are often collies, especially border collies which are hard wired to herd anything from sneakers to sheep. Responding to the sound of a bell, whistle, voice, and hand signals for more than a dozen distinct commands, they herd to live and live to herd.

While herding dogs can lead, a heeler is a hound who drives animals from the rear, sometimes nipping at their heels, hence the name. Shepherds and sheepdogs, including Australia’s red and blue heelers, might apply.

There are also tending dogs—again some shepherds and Briards—who create a living fence to control and protect the flocks, also known as a “mob” of sheep, as they move them around. 

Finally there are livestock guardian dogs following a history beginning in 150 B.C. in Rome. The Great Pyrenees, often called gentle giants, are a popular choice in the U.S. While a puppy, the dog is bonded to the flock and remains a full-time, sweet-faced, king-size member of the group.

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