Arizona’s Rovey Dairy Expands Niche in Cows and Sheep

Jersey cows, at Rovey Dairy in Glendale, Ariz., Crane their necks for a better view on January 22. The dairy processes 1,800 cows, twice a day, and builds a dairy with 1,200 ewes to reach other niche markets. (Photo by Rebecca Miller)

GLENDALE, Arizona – There is a legacy and a story in the soil Paul Rovey stands on, even with a “cotton picking highway” running through it these days. But there is also the promise.

Arizona just celebrated its centennial in 2012. By Eastern standards, that’s not a lot of history. But the Rovey family have lived in the Phoenix area for generations. Her father, Emil, was born just four years after Arizona became a state. When he graduated from the University of Arizona, he returned home and purchased the first acreage of what is now Rovey Dairy, in 1942.

Backing away

To hear Paul say it, most of the decisions they made about new businesses happened by accident. The family had Jerseys at first, but switched to Holsteins. Almost 40 years ago, Paul visited a dairy in Jersey with the intention of purchasing older heifers about to calve for his children’s fair plans. The owner was retiring. “I came home that day with 380 Jersey heifers,” he said.

It was a learning curve. They had to figure out how to handle the Jerseys. Calves also needed a learning curve of their own. But they took the hit and sold their Holsteins. The dairy has the capacity to milk just over 2,000. Right now they milk about 1,800 twice a day. The milk is marketed by a dairy cooperative.

Enter: sheep

But cows aren’t the only thing Rovey Dairy owns. In the grassy enclosures and resting areas, Dorper, East Frisians and a few Lacaune sheep roam the grass or relax in the shade of the flat-roofed shelters.

Hooves clash in an eight-stall home-made milking stand, while workers attach a milking machine, also home-made. Paul Rovey said that as a certified Category B operation they are allowed to have an outdoor lounge. All the milk is used to make cheese.

Paul says he also backed down in sheep. He had been a buyer of last resort at local fairs for youth market projects. They had small fields which were not useful for large equipment. He thought, why not stop the sale of sheep lambs? He loved the lamb. He could grow his own.

About 10 years ago he started with meat breeds and later got Dorpers, a furry sheep. At a dairy meeting, he told an agricultural economist friend about his Dorpers. The friend asked him why he wasn’t treating them. Paul was incredulous. “No one treats a sheep.”

But then he saw the numbers on the price of sheep’s milk and cheese, “and I said, ‘Oh, we’re going to milk the Dorpers.’ They have about 1,200 now, but only milk about 25. They don’t keep up with the demand for cheese, however.

Different, but good?

Dairy sheep are different from cows or even goats, said Debbie Webster, representative of the Dairy Sheep Association of North America. “Here’s the problem with sheep’s milk,” she said. “Sheep have a limited supply and they can only milk for a limited time. “

But these limited quantities? She calls it “liquid gold”. It is not easy to find uniform statistics on what sheep’s milk provides nowadays, as there is no research service recording the data like cow dairy.

But Webster said its South Carolina sheep milk costs $ 28 a gallon, though most are marketed in half-gallons. She added that sheep’s milk contains three times more protein than goat’s or cow’s milk and more fat as well. Different markets bring different prices for the products. “It just depends on who you are and what you can get in your market,” Webster said.

New opportunity

Paul Rovey said he was excited about the possibilities. They want to add sheep’s milk ice cream and yogurt when they hit the road. They can also raise lambs and sell them for meat.

The Roveys already have a growing market, selling to local restaurants. They run through their Jerseys in Wagyu, raise the oxen and process them to fill orders. They also have a growing demand for ground lamb and lamb cuts.

Oh, and they have Watusi cattle, a breed acquired because of their awesome horns. It wasn’t an intentional offshoot either, but Paul Rovey said they decided to keep them even though he was no longer rope. “Because they’re fun,” he said. “And what is life if you don’t have a little fun?” Today steers ride in an old car, nicknamed the “Cattle Lake”, in local parades. Paul says they like it.

The Rovey family has farmed in various locations throughout the valley and further north for decades. Now, several of Paul Rovey’s children are involved in agriculture. One, although not involved, operates a hair salon on the property.

One mile away you can see State Farm Stadium, home of the Arizona Cardinals National Football League team. A third of the ground it sits on was Rovey’s land. Currently, between the main farm and the additional properties, the Roveys operate about 2,000 acres, said Paul Rovey. Farm and Dairy.

Rain, go away

On a recent January day, the day after about a third of an inch of rain fell – rain by Arizona standards – the farm was still drying out. Arizona is built for dry weather, Paul explained. Not for wet. They went through an unusually wet winter for their region. Just when it starts to dry out due to a storm, another passes.

Water is a trap 22. Phoenix grows rapidly. In just nine years, according to US Census figures, the city has grown almost 14% between 2010 and 2019. The population hovers at 7.2 million and continues. Set in a sprawling valley, with bustling centers like Scottsdale and Glendale radiating out, the metro area draws its water from reservoirs located in the surrounding mountains.

This resource is considered finite and has been a source of contention between Arizona and neighboring states. Paul Rovey returns to the old adage: “Whiskey is to drink. Water is for fighting. This makes efficiency and renewable practices all the more important.

When he talks about his family’s farming, he is calculated on water efficiency and overall yield. Sugar beets, a food source for cows and sheep, use half the water as corn silage and produce almost double the amount per acre. They grow alfalfa, oats, barley and sorghum for silage. The majority of what they feed the cows and sheep is grown on family lands.

Lemonade

“I always say that I come across these things, like I came across Jerseys… I didn’t buy sheep with the intention of milking sheep,” he said. “You take lemons and you make lemonade.”

These days this lemonade looks and tastes like Gouda mutton, “Pecorino Phoenician”, a Manchego called “Sunchego” and a batch of Manchego that ended in the name “Peg Leg Jack”.

Across the highway is a 53-foot shipping container. This, along with a second, will be the site of Rovey Dairy’s new milking parlor and ice cream and yogurt processing facility. One will accommodate 34 sheep milking stalls and the other the vats. The milk will be pasteurized as it passes from the milking parlor to the storage tanks. Currently, a company located in the region manufactures Roveys sheep cheese.

That’s the beauty of sheep farming too, added Webster. You can make cheeses in small batches and you don’t need a giant cheese room.

Paul Rovey said Farm and Dairy he does not see the sheep as a competitor to his Jersey dairy. This opens up another niche for the family, which has had to contend with rocky milk prices in recent years. “The real challenge in the fluid (cow’s) milk market is that companies haven’t innovated,” he said. “I see sheep’s milk as a way to innovate.”

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