Timing and circumstance led Kristyn and Kevin Henslee to pursue what many may find a most unusual farm business. Three years ago, the Henlees started Yellow House Cheese, a sheep dairy and artisan cheese business in Seville, Ohio.
The Henslees operate one of just two sheep dairies in Ohio, and they are part of just 100 sheep dairies across the United States. And although they may be a minority here in the U.S., the Henslees note that milking sheep is a common practice in Europe.
The most commonly recognized cheeses made from sheep’s milk include feta of Greece, Roquefort of France, Manchego of Spain and Pecorino Romano, Pecorino Sardo and Ricotta of Italy.
Kristyn and Kevin Henslee met as 4-H members in Medina County, but neither had experience in the dairy industry.
“I grew up showing beef steers and Kevin showed turkeys,” Kristyn said.
While Kevin is a sixth grade teacher in the Medina School System, Kristyn longed for something that she could do at home while raising two young daughters, Corinne, 10 and Ellen, nine.
“We knew that we wanted to be involved in agriculture,” she said. “We only have four acres here, so we knew it had to be something we could do on small acreage. We had always raised our own garden and beef, so we didn’t think it was ridiculous to milk sheep.”
Kristyn read a news release announcing a sheep dairy conference at the Ohio State University’s Agricultural Technical Institute in Wooster.
“Kevin’s best friend was a chef out in Las Vegas, and we ran the idea by him,” she said. “He told us the restaurants out there were importing sheep’s milk cheese for $75 a pound. Then we learned that the United States imports 70 million pounds of sheep’s milk cheese each year and produces just one million pounds of it. We thought we might be on to something.”
After attending the Wooster conference, Kristyn also participated in a class at the University of Wisconsin’s Spooner Agricultural Research Station, which operates a sheep dairy. The Henslees purchased 30 lambs from Wisconsin and later purchased rams to supplement their flock.
“Our flock is a mix of Fresian, Lacaune, Dorset, South African Meat Merino and Hampshire breeds,” Kristyn said. “We are working to move our ewes up to 70% dairy genetics for optimal dairy production as well as trying to keep some meat qualities to market our spring lambs. There are a limited amount of bloodlines available in the U.S. for milk production — it’s not the American style of lamb that people are used to seeing.”
The Henslees milk their ewes seasonally from March through July, coinciding with the spring lambing season. Currently, lambs are weaned at 30 days, although the Henslees have weaned lambs at 36 hours and placed them on milk replacer in the past.
“Thirty percent of the ewe’s milk production is in the first 30 days after lambing, so it’s a trade off,” Kristyn said.
The family is currently milking 44 ewes twice a day producing about four and a half pounds of milk each per day. The milking process takes about 45 minutes.
A custom-designed raised milking parlor accommodates eight ewes at one time, which allows the Henslees to use two bucket milkers with split pulsation to gently milk the ewes.
“Since ewes have only two teats and cows have four, we are able to split each bucket milker between two ewes,” Kevin said.
The milking process takes about two minutes per ewe.
The milking routine had a tough start in the beginning.
“Those first three days it was pretty rough,” Kevin admits. “We didn’t know what we were doing and neither did the sheep. But we got there.”
The Henslees found that much like dairy cows, the sheep soon learned the routine and seem to look forward to milking.
“You have to have a leader in the group, though,” Kristyn said. “When they are going in to be milked, if you have a timid leader, the sheep don’t go up to the parlor as easily.”
After collecting the milk, Kristyn makes cheese about every three days. Every drop of sheep’s milk goes into the cheese-making process.
“We get a lot of calls asking if we sell sheep’s milk, and we don’t,” she said. “We use it all in making cheese.”
Sheep’s milk contains a much higher fat content than cow’s milk. While cow’s milk may have 3.9 grams of fat per 100 grams of milk, sheep’s milk may average 6 grams of fat per 100 grams of milk.
“You wouldn’t want to drink it,” she said.
Kristyn learned to make cheese while taking two courses with Three Shepherds of Mad River Valley, located in Vermont.
“To me, it was going to be like baking a cake,” she said. “You have a recipe and you put the ingredients together and follow the directions. But there are a lot of variables, and you have to wait 90 days to see if it turned out.”
To make the cheese, Kristyn combines the ingredients into a large vat in her creamery, then places the cheese into molds where they remain for two days. Then the molds go to the “cheese cave” where they cure for 75 to 90 days.
“We keep the cheese cave at 50 degrees and try to maintain 95% humidity to help the cheese age,” Kevin said.
The couple converted an existing root cellar on their farm, which they dug out and renovated with an extensive ventilation system.
“In the summer it’s a challenge to maintain the humidity, so we wet the floor and we have misters also,” he said.
Early in their business plan, the Henslees decided to concentrate on making artisan blue cheese.
“Mainly we chose blue cheese because no one else in Ohio was doing it,” Kristyn said. “It was a lot of trial and error, because we didn’t want it to taste like anyone else’s. We wanted it to taste like cheese with a blue flavor, not have a moldy taste.”
Yellow House Blue is the dairy’s signature blue cheese offering. In its first year to compete in 2013, Yellow House Blue won second place in the American Cheese Society’s annual cheese competition in the Sheep’s Milk Blue Mold Cheeses category. Yellow House Blue is described as “a sophisticated taste, firm with sharp, salty, blue flavor bite with a complex set of flavors.”
Yellow House Cheese also produces a fresh cow’s milk cheese, Wooster Pike Blue. As the Henslees perfected their cheeses, they began to sell at farmer’s markets.
“We go to markets at the North Union markets at Shaker Square and Chagrin Falls, the Cuyahoga Valley Conservancy District Market and the Medina Farmer’s Market,” Kevin said.
“We were brand new and we had no reputation,” added Kristyn. “We were aiming to be consistent, and make sure we had a product that people wanted. What we found was that many of the chefs would come by the markets and buy local ingredients. They really started coming to us by word of mouth before we were even ready to approach them.”
The Henslees also found themselves launching in the midst of the local food movement.
“Everyone is thinking about locally grown products, and our cheeses fit right into that,” Kristyn said. “We work really hard to educate our customers at the markets about how our cheeses are made, and we find the restaurant staffs share our story with their customers too.”
Because it takes 90 days from start to cured cheese, the Henslees are still seeking to find balance between supply and demand.
“We don’t make cheese just to make cheese,” Kristyn said. “I have a home for almost every wheel of cheese in the cheese cave right now. So when someone new calls to buy cheese, we’re looking at 90 days to get it to them.”
The Henslees also see growth in their value-added products. They sell lambs, lamb meat and wool, as well as sell their whey products to local farms.
“We’ve worked really hard to put up a high quality product,” said Kevin. “We work really hard at doing the right thing.”
Learn more about Yellow House Cheese by visiting their website at www.yellowhousecheese.com.