A boutique sheep-milking operation on the edge of Ashburton town is making cheese in the district while the sun still shines.

But decisions on its future will need to be made soon.

Hipi Cheese, owned and operated by Jacy and Allan Ramsay, of Ashburton, started more than four years ago as they worked through their sheep milking processes. Their first milking was in November 2017.

The couple, who both work other jobs, have a micro-farm block of just under 2ha which stocks 24 mostly East Friesian milking ewes but in the past few seasons has included Dairymead genetics with ''a dash of Awassi''.

Advertisement

The milk is naturally a2.

It is an ideal stocking number for the size of the land, and to ensure udder health remains at optimum levels with no somatic cell count issues.

Some of the white ewes are closer to pets, as many of the ewes accept regular hand feeding, especially if it's maize which is like lollies to sheep.

They are easily identified from a distance through their markings, or personalities, such as curious 4-year-old Mickey, or the fearless Cassianna, or the cheeky Black Witch.

''They are not really pets because they work hard producing good milk for us,'' Jacy says.

The couple, along with help from son Hamish (10) are nearing the end of their lambing season; it started on September 8, and traditionally has a narrow 17- to 20-day window.

Eight of the ewes were expecting triplets, and the rest twins, but there was a surprise set of quadruplets.

They have shorn most of the mob - just two younger ewes have kept their wool.

Advertisement

Shearing sheep in winter is like turning on the eating switch, which helps to develop bigger lambs, Allan says.

Newborn lambs stay with their mothers to get a good start and, depending on their future, may be kept, sold as pets, or sold to other breeders.

''After a week or so we take them off mum for a few hours before we milk then they go back together for the rest of the day and night,'' Jacy says.

''While they are off their mums I bottle feed any that want a feed and introduce meal.
''It is a gentle weaning process that results in our lambs being pretty friendly.''

Jacy Ramsay with one of the milking ewes' 1-day-old lamb. Photo / Toni Williams
Jacy Ramsay with one of the milking ewes' 1-day-old lamb. Photo / Toni Williams

Allan says sheep can be lambing as a 1-year-old but they need to be a live-weight of about 50kg.

Most of the adult ewes weigh about 70kg to 75kg.

Jacy and Allan have spent the past few years getting established with their sheep stock and processes.

They run the sheep, milk them, then process the milk for cheese themselves.

It is a path that has come from knowing people in the industry, and making the most of the opportunity.

''There is a real art to keeping sheep calm and trained for milking. It's not really something that someone who struggles with traditional cow dairy farming would enjoy,'' Jacy says.

Allan Ramsay milks a contented-looking ewe this time last year. Photo / Supplied
Allan Ramsay milks a contented-looking ewe this time last year. Photo / Supplied

''The cost of feed is not cheap, we feed about a cup of maize per sheep per day which makes them easier to handle.''

But she admits working with the sheep is fun, even if ''perfecting our cheese is becoming an obsession''.

The milking plant, which takes six at a time, has the same basic features as a 1960s cow shed with some 2019 features, such as a vacuum pump and modern pulsators, Allan jokes.

Milking takes about half an hour, averaging about 30 litres of milk, followed by intense hygiene cleaning time.

Then the milk is pasteurised ready for cheese-making.

''We think this is the best way to capture the freshness from the pasture the sheep are eating,'' Jacy says.

''When our sheep have a change in pasture its reflected in the cheese the changes can be from different herbs in the pasture or season and growth stage.

''We process every day in what we think is the smallest cheese processing room in NZ.''

It then goes into the ''cheese cave'' for maturation for four to 24 months, getting turned regularly.

The hard cheese is then sold at Farmers' Markets in Ashburton, Geraldine and Oxford or through Facebook.

''Our cheese production is limited to hard cheese as it is accepted this is the safest cheese to produce for sale,'' Jacy says.

The sheep enjoy being hand-fed maize, a lolly-type treat which helps with handling. Photo / Toni Williams
The sheep enjoy being hand-fed maize, a lolly-type treat which helps with handling. Photo / Toni Williams

''Getting everything up to risk management programme standard for Ministry for Primary Industries is a big challenge and a big investment. The process is really robust and when you go through the process you start to realise that is so important that we produce safe food.''

It would cost too much to consider expanding their operation to all cheese types or raw milk.

They have only started selling this year at the Ashburton Farmers Market, but can sell five times more in Geraldine, due to the tourist markets.

''Having a chat with our customers is a part we really enjoy. They come from all walks of life and can see that our producing animals have a good life style,'' Jacy says.

European travellers were particularly fond of the sheep product but Kiwis have been a bit reserved to try it, but those who have were pleasantly surprised.

The Ramsays have albeit perfected their cheese product, and are now hopeful Mid Cantabrians will jump at the chance to lay claim to having their own ''artisan-style cheese maker'' in the district.

''We need to make work of this, make it work at this level for our animals,'' Allan says.