Jim and Kim Ashmore

Milk Montana-style

Jan 10, 2019

Couple tempts chefs and consumers with locally made sheep dairy products

On their ranch nestled at the foot of Montana's Sheep Mountain, Kim and Jim Ashmore are carving out a farm-to-table niche with their lamb products, sheep's milk and farmstead cheeses.

Despite growing up on a California goat dairy, Kim wasn't a fan of goat's milk. So when she and Jim were exploring dairy options, they gravitated toward sheep. The couple now milks 35 Lacaune and East Friesian sheep at their Sheep Mountain Creamery outside of Helena, Mont. 

Getting from "let's milk sheep" to a Grade A dairy has been a journey as steep and surprising as a Rocky Mountain hiking trail. 

Riding the wave

The Ashmores' journey began in New Mexico where they established a Dorper sheep herd, focusing on meat production. Jim was also in the Air Force and when he retired from active duty, he returned to Afghanistan and Iraq to work as a civilian. That's when the Ashmores decided to pack up the ranch and move it to Montana so Kim could be closer to their children and grandchildren. 

While working on a Dorper meat operation, Kim began educating herself about sheep's milk. Soon the Ashmores were owners of the third sheep dairy in Montana. 

The timing was auspicious. Sheep Mountain Creamery and the ranch, dubbed KJ'n Ranch, were about to ride the "locavore" farm-to-table wave beginning to wash through the food industry. Consumers were becoming more interested in how and where their food was raised and looking for products made closer to home.

"There are some wonderful cheeses traditionally made from sheep's milk, such as Manchego, feta, Romano, pecorino and Roquefort," says Kim. "And people who are lactose-intolerant can enjoy these dairy products."

The Ashmores began growing their flock: Lacaune and East Friesian sheep for their dairy production abilities and Dorper sheep for meat. The dairy breeds hail from France and Germany and are considered the two best for milk production. Dorper sheep originated in South Africa, where they were raised for lean, mild-flavored meat. 

 

Choosy about nutrition

To get the right mixture of feed for their ewes, the Ashmores consulted with David Miller of CHS Nutrition and experts from Montana State University and the University of Wisconsin to provide the best nutritional program for gestation and lactation. 

"When I received the call from Kim about her milking sheep, we talked about how she wanted to make specialty cheeses and her specific requirements for feed, such as no corn or soy, local grains and full fortification with minerals and vitamins," says Miller. "Then we worked with our nutrition staff and Mountain View Co-op in Great Falls, Mont., to come up with a custom lactation pellet and a supplement for the non-lactating animals."

With a focus on being all natural, they began feeding their high-protein pellets, along with Montana native grass hay. 

 

Sheep feed, pellets 

 

And that's where their journey experienced a major setback. The ranch lost too many lambs from their first crop ans suspected the problem was related to hay fed to the ewes. By changing their supplier, testing all purchased hay and feeding the pellets, they've seen a vast improvement in flock performance. 

The Ashmores took a deep breath and forged ahead. They launched KJ'n Ranch USDA-certified lamb products, specializing in seasoned lamb sausage, ground lamb and custom cuts, and began selling them at local markets, at farmers' markets and to restaurants.

Gradually the dairy began to take shape. In April 2018, it became the first Grade-A-certified sheep dairy in Montana, producing fluid milk and soft cheeses. Sheep Mountain Creamery now offers bottled milk, feta cheese, and flavored and plain cheese curds called EWE Squeaky Cheese - all made with 100 percent sheep's milk. 

Sheep cheese 

 

 

Lamb ambassador

When she isn't feeding, milking and caring for the flock or working through the set-up requirements for the dairy, Kim is marketing maven for sheep's milk products. Besides educating herself about the nutritional and health benefits of sheep's milk and cheeses, she has thrown herself into promoting the industry across Montana. 

In late August, she chaired the Montana Lamb Jam. Local chefs prepared dishes with Montana-raised lamb. "The chef from Electric City Coffee used our Dorper lamb in three dishes: a ground-lamb slider, a Hermosa-grilled chop and our maple-ginger sausage in lamb Benedict," she says. Sheep Mountain Creamery provided its cheese curds for table snacks and cream for coffee and teamed up with a local soapmaker to create sheep's soap take-home favors for Lamb Jam visitors.

Kim made sure to spread the farm-to-table focus beyond lamb and encouraged the chefs to use Montana-grown vegetables and herbs in their side dishes. 

 

More changes ahead

While they haven't achieved all their goals, the Ashmores are delighted with the progress they've made with their operation and in growing the demand for Montana sheep products. Next on their agenda is exploring more cheese varieties, possibly building cheese-aging caves, and increasing their milk flock to 60 ewes in 2019 and eventually 250 to 300 ewes. 

For those contemplating diversifying into sheep, Kim advises, "Do your homework. Make sure it's something you want to get into. Do a feasibility study to discover if you have a viable local market. Don't be afraid to ask questions of sheep producers and other experts."

"We're so excited about the future," she adds. "I love that we're making products people enjoy and that help them eat healthier and recognize the benefits our sheep industry brings to the state. I just wish there were more hours in the day!"

Smiling sheep 

 

 

Learn more: Read more at KJNranch.com and watch a video at chsinc.com/c

Check out the full C magazine with this article and more.

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