Wisconsin farm turns to Assaf sheep, genetics to make cheese

Barry Adams
Associated Press
Luis Montellano tends pens containing week-old lambs born through an effort to introduce the Assaf breed of sheep into the United States at a farm run by Ms. J. & Co. in Juda, Wis. The $2 million project is designed to increase sheep's milk production in the state to help meet the demand from artisan cheesemakers.

JUDA (AP) - A Wisconsin cheese-making company is in the midst of a $2 million project to establish a flock of 1,500 sheep known for their high quality milk production.

Jeff Wideman has made a career out of making award-winning cheese.

Despite this region’s strong Swiss heritage, one of Wideman’s best creations is his English Hollow Cheddar, named after the English immigrants who settled this part of southeastern Green County in the 1800s.

But a more recent international flare with Spanish, Israeli and Portuguese influences is transforming the farm on which Wideman grew up and could help cultivate a new wave of farming and cheesemaking in this cow-centric countryside along Carter Road southwest of Juda.

Wideman, the lead cheesemaker at Maple Leaf Cheese in nearby Monroe, and Shirley Knox, his business partner, are in the midst of a $2 million project to establish a flock of Assaf sheep, known for their higher quality and higher milk production than other breeds. The idea is to increase sheep’s milk production to meet the growing demand from cheesemakers chasing higher profit margins, deeper flavors and more varieties in the state’s ever-expanding artisan cheese industry.

“This will be absolutely transformative,” said John Umhoefer, executive director of the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association, host of this week’s World Championship Cheese Contest at Monona Terrace. “Goat’s milk has been more on the radar for a lot of people but sheep’s milk cheese has enormous potential.”

To make it happen and to establish a 1,500-sheep flock, Wideman and Knox, who have been business partners for 20 years, have recruited a third partner. Mariana Marques de Almeida is a senior animal scientist, agricultural engineer and an expert in Assaf sheep genetics.

In a Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2018 photo, Mariana Marques de Almeida, left, and animal scientist and expert in genetics, and Jeff Wideman, lead cheesemaker at Maple Leaf Cheese in Monroe, Wis., hold the first lamb born for their Ms. J and Co. dairy sheep farm near Juda, Wis. Marques de Almeida, a native of Portugal, is a partner in the project along with Wideman and his longtime business partner, Shirley Knox.

Marques de Almeida, 47, who grew up and was schooled in Portugal, has a master’s degree in animal production from the University of Lisbon. She spent almost seven years working with Assaf sheep and making cheese before moving to southern Spain where she worked in the sheep and goat cheese industry. That’s where, at a cheese contest in 2010, she met Wideman. Two years later, she was a judge at the World Championship Cheese Contest in Madison. In 2015, she applied for a visa and is now living in Green County and overseeing what is dubbed Ms. J and Co., the initials of the first names of the three partners.

“This is so interesting,” Marques de Almeida said. “If you would have told me five years ago that I was coming to live in Wisconsin I would have said, ‘You’re crazy.’ But the opportunity came.”

Marques de Almeida will be among the judges this week deciding the top cheeses in the world. The contest, with a record 3,402 entries, up 15 percent over the 2016 contest, also has a record number of 121 categories, an increase from the 110 at the previous contest. The increase is attributed, in part, to more varieties and style of sheep and goat milk cheeses.

Judging will be held Tuesday and Wednesday with the top 16 cheeses selected for a final round of judging on Thursday evening to determine the best in show. In 2016, Fitchburg-based Emmi Roth USA took the award with its Grand Cru Surchoix produced in Monroe. It marked the first time in almost 30 years since an American cheesemaker took top honors at the show, judged by 55 cheese graders, buyers and dairy science professors from 20 countries and 15 U.S. states.

Sheep’s milk production a tiny fraction

Wisconsin is home to nearly 1.3 million dairy cows spread over 9,090 farms, according to the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board. By comparison, there are only about 2,500 sheep on about 12 farms in the state being milked, according to Laurel Kieffer, a former dairy sheep farmer and who in 2016 help found the Sheep Dairy Association of Wisconsin. In California, New York and Nebraska, flocks can be commonly found that are between 1,000 and 2,000 sheep with milk prices ranging from $1.10 to $1.30 a pound.

In Wisconsin, milk prices range between 75 cents and 85 cents a pound and many consumers often are unaware of sheep’s milk cheese or confuse it with goat’s milk cheese, Kieffer said. It also tends to be more expensive than cow’s milk cheese, which is another hurdle for the industry.

Jordan Knox tends pens containing lambs born through an effort to introduce the Assaf breed of sheep into the United States at a farm run by Ms. J. & Co. in Juda, Wis.,

“A lot of people haven’t gone past cow cheddar and mozzarella,” said Kieffer, whose organization received a $38,000 grant from the state last year to promote the dairy sheep industry. “There’s some culture that has to be worked through but there’s also just a lot of work to do if the industry is going to continue to grow. I’m hopeful and excited.”

Assaf sheep is a synthetic breed established in Israel in the 1950s. It was exported to Spain between 1977 and the 1990s where the Assaf Spanish Breeders Association implemented a successful genetic improvement program to make the breed the best milk-producing sheep in the world. The project near Juda became possible in December 2014 when the U.S. opened its borders to allow for the importation of Assaf sheep semen from Europe. The borders had been closed for years due to concerns of scrapie, a fatal, degenerative disease that affects the nervous systems of sheep.

Ms. J and Co. received its first frozen semen on June 26.

“That’s the miraculous day for us,” Marques de Almeida said.

Most of the state’s sheep flocks used for milk production consist of East Friesian and Lacaune breeds of sheep but Assaf can produce two to three times the amount of milk, Wideman said. The flocks are also spread out around the state, making it harder to collect milk and use economies of scale. Wideman envisions not only his farm but other farms in the Juda area adding Assaf to create a hub of sheep milk production on several small farms.

“The people that are milking now haven’t had the opportunity to get decent genetics,” said Wideman, 68. “This will be like no other place in the United States. We’re interested in improving genetics and creating opportunities for other people. This is a better way of dairying sheep.”

A new way for small farms

Wideman’s parents moved to the 150-acre farm in 1951 where they milked 29 cows, had a small flock of chickens, a few hogs and some Suffolk sheep, used for their meat and wool, which Wideman showed at FFA competitions. About 16 acres remain along with the farmhouse where Wideman was raised. He and Knox purchased the property from his parents, knocked down the old barn and constructed facilities incorporating part of the old barn’s foundation in which to raise lambs. The construction of a barn for 1,500 sheep with a 72-stall milking parlor is scheduled to begin this spring.

Jordan Knox tends a pregnant ewe that is part of an effort to introduce the Assaf breed of sheep into the United States at a farm run by Ms. J. & Co. in Juda, Wis.

At Ms. J and Co., milking is still a few years away. For now the focus is on lambing and creating a genetically pure breed of Assaf sheep through multiple rounds of breeding cycles using a mixed breed of 240 East Frisian, Lacaune and Awassi sheep, which have a five-month gestation period. About 160 lambs have been born this winter with another round scheduled to drop in March and April, which includes a flock of about 40 sheep on the farm. The first batches of lambs, however, have been born at farms near Rewey and Fennimore, almost an hour away. To prevent disease, the lambs are immediately pulled from their mothers and shipped to the lambing facility at Ms. J and Co., home to multiple pens and feeding stations pumping out colostrum and later, milk, into rubber nipples.

To keep the lambs warm during transport, Wideman has cut plastic barrels in half that he salvaged from his cheese factory. He can fit four new-born lambs into each and four-half barrels into the back of his Lincoln Navigator he refers to as his “ewebermobile.” An air freshener hanging in the back helps with the smell but the sound can be pretty intense when the lambs are not nodding off.

“It’s pretty noisy at first because they’ve just come off their mother,” Wideman said. “When you get on a long stretch of road, like between Platteville and Darlington, they all lay down and go to sleep. But as soon as you slow down or there’s a change in the driving, they all start blatting.”