SIXTH-generation Barossa Valley farmer Ellen Chatterton is driven by a desire to make the most of what options are available to her.
While looking at opportunities to diversify on their Lyndoch block, she was inspired by a story about an entrepreneur in the United Kingdom making ice-cream from sheep milk.
“I thought, ‘how hard can it be?’,” she said. “We already had sheep, a slightly different breed, and the seasonal nature works in with running of the property.”
It took several years of planning and research, and a slight shift in focus, but her brand Riverside Dairy has just finished its first year of making and selling cheese and yoghurt made from sheep milk sourced on her farm at Lyndoch.
She built a small dairy, importing the head crate from the United States, and a processing room – including a 50-litre vat – and began building up her herd of dairy sheep.
Ms Chatterton began with some Awassi sheep, before adding East Friesians.
She believes a cross of the two is the best for milking.
She also just bought some more ewes from the recently-closed Island Pure dairy on Kangaroo Island, bringing her flock to about 60 – the number she believes is most sustainable.
To learn how to make the cheese, Ms Chatterton completed a short cheesemaking course in Adelaide to get some basics and then returned to the farm to experiment.
For most of 2017, she focused on milking the sheep and “playing around” to get the end products right.
Then, last year, she began selling the sheep milk haloumi cheese and sheep milk yoghurt at the Barossa Farmers’ Markets and Adelaide Farmers’ Markets and supplying to restaurants.
She has also just perfected a Manchego cheese – a traditional Spanish cheese made from sheep milk.
Ms Chatterton has not ruled out going back to her original plan of sheep milk ice-cream but wants to work on her recipe and get it right.
Since Awassi and East Friesians are shedding sheep, they are run separately from the Merino and prime lamb herds.
The ewes lamb in June and milk through to just after Christmas, with natural joining from three Awassi rams – two homebred – and an East Frieisian ram.
In the future Ms Chatterton said she may consider artificial insemination to introduce some fresh European genetics.
As she builds up the herd, all females are kept with the lambs sold as wether lambs.
Ms Chatterton said with dairy sheep such lean animals, surplus hoggets would potentially be processed into small goods.
During milking the sheep get a mix of lupins and oats in a bucket.
“The sheep are very friendly – they’re a bit like labradors, they’ll do anything for food,” she said. “They do have their own personalities.”
This is not the only side project the family has established.
Her parents Roland and Aileen run a sheep and cropping operation, with Ellen helping her father manage the sheep enterprise.
They run about 800 Dohnes, having made the switch from Merinos a few years ago, with half joined to Poll Dorsets for prime lamb production and the other half in a self-replacing Dohne flock for wool production.
They sell their wool through Australian Wool Network’s Barossa wool brand.
They also operate a bed and breakfast while Ellen’s brother, Richard, also runs a pasteurised egg business.
Ellen said they were looking to do the most with the resources available to them.
“It’s a small property, about 400 hectares, with a little bit of that scrub and riverbanks,” she said.
“I was looking at ways to diversify without needing more land.”
Ellen said she had considered options such as selling off whole lambs, but elected to take her passion for sheep in a new direction.