Farming family’s world first as they begin to milk ewes
A farming family on the Llŷn peninsula has become the first in North Wales – and only the second in the country – to milk their sheep commercially.
Third generation farmer Alan Jones, wife Bethan and two sons Osian and Morgan started with 30 ewes and hope to be milking 78 by March.
By 2020 they aim to have a 450-head milking flock at Derwen Gam, their 230-acre organic holding in Chwilog, Pwllheli.
The family were wary of the need for economies of scale as margins fall. “Going niche is the only way to get an adequate return,” said Mr Jones.
Alan and Osian have built a small-scale single-sided herringbone parlour that can milk 30 ewes in 45 minutes.
Its modular design means the farm’s two machines can be scaled up to eight, enabling the family to milk 120 in the same time-frame. They initially opted for Friesland ewes, the most common and highest yielding milker in Britain, while they explored other breeds.
“I even had a go at milking a Welsh ewe – not very successfully,” said Alan.
“She was too wild and kept kicking out, so I had to give up after two weeks.
“Still, it was probably the first ever Welsh sheep to be milked by machine!”
Instead, with one eye on lamb production, they settled on the Lleyn.
Milk output is much lower than specialist dairy sheep, which can produce up to 1,100lb of milk per year.
But Alan said there were other benefits.
“They are much hardier and produce lambs with much better conformation,” he said.
“Whereas the Frieslands will lie down in the shed during bad weather, the Lleyns will be out in the fields eating grass and making money.”
There’s a marketing advantage too.
“As far as I am aware, we’re the only people in the world milking Lleyn sheep!” said Alan.
“The Lleyn may have a lower milk yield but its ratio of 6% butterfat to 5% protein gives it a richness which enhances the taste of the cheese. There are many reported health benefits too.”
All milk is supplied to Bethesda cheese maker Carrie Rimes, who learnt her trade in France and now specialises in cheeses made from ewe’s milk.
Last year her business, Cosyn Cymru, collected the best new product accolade at the British Cheese Awards.
However plans to create a new dairy at Moelyci, Tregarth, are hanging in the balance as the community farm attempts to raise the £1.1m needed to buy the site.
Demand for sheep’s milk is rising and while there are some 200 producers registered with the British Sheep Dairying Association, Carrie was keen to source her supplies from North Wales. Previously her milk was trucked from Lancashire.
She got involved with a Farming Connect Agrisgôp group led by farm consultant and entrepreneur Geraint Hughes. Members included sheep producers looking to add value to their enterprises, from meat box deliveries to micro dairies.
Two were exploring sheep’s milk, including Alan and Osian, who quickly showed interest in a product which can sell for two to three times that of cows’ milk.
Carrie said satisfying the growing demand for local ewe’s milk was a chicken-and-egg situation, with new processors needing new producers, and vice versa.
As a result, Alan and Osian’s milking unit was a boost for the whole sector in North Wales.
She added: “I’m now optimistic that this will encourage new processors to get involved, which will in turn result in new markets for both pasteurised and unpasteurised cheese as well as yoghurt, ice cream and butter.”
For Alan and Osian, joining Geraint’s Agrisgôp group provided support and guidance from other sheep producers.
Alan recalled the early meetings: “Although some of us were initially reluctant to share ideas and trust each other, we soon realised how much knowledge we had in the group.
“It became clear we could learn from each other without limiting our chances of success.
“Working this way gives you the courage to take those difficult first steps at a time when many farmers would feel isolated.”
Geraint Hughes (left) with Alan Jones and wife Bethan. In the background, their son Osian is milking Lleyn ewes