A SHEEP DAIRY FARM IN GALLANT, ALABAMA
Words by Jennifer Stewart Kornegay
Photos by Kyle Carpenter
Family Portrait by Shuptrine/Kelly Photography
When the stress of working in corporate IT got too high, Greg Kelly decided to change careers. His wife Ana, a chef who’d been at Birmingham’s Highlands Bar & Grill and a culinary educator, was also feeling led away from her current profession. “We just knew we wanted something different for our family,” Greg says. “I always felt like there was an alternate calling for us,” Ana adds.
A cottage industry they could build together was appealing, and with Ana’s cooking background, producing a food product made sense. Several farmstead dairies in the South provided initial inspiration. “We looked at what they were doing and thought, We could do that,” Ana says.
When the couple founded Dayspring Dairy and its onsite creamery in Gallant, Alabama, Greg traded time with mainframes for mornings in a milking parlor, and Ana stopped teaching others and became a student herself, learning how to make cheese.
But the first step was figuring out which animal to raise. “Most people hear ‘dairy’ and think cows, but neither of us was raised on a farm, and cows seemed a little daunting,” Greg says. Goats were off the table too.
“I don't really like goats; they eat everything!” Ana says. “And neither of us just loves goat cheese.”
A visit to a sheep dairy in Tennessee gave them their answer. “We loved the cheese, and the sheep were so cute and fluffy and sweet,” Ana says. Being the first sheep dairy in Alabama was also a plus, offering some built-in buzz for the new business.
Next, they needed a home for their flock. They found it about 50 miles north of Birmingham in Gallant. The tiny rural town rests amid the lush foothills that mark the Piedmont region of northeast Alabama. The Kellys purchased a 30-acre farmstead there in 2011, and by 2013, Dayspring Dairy was in operation.
The name has dual meaning, but it primarily points to the role faith played in the venture. “When we were just getting going, there were so many doors opened, so many things that happened that I can’t explain except to say that God was behind them. Dayspring is a biblical reference to Jesus, and we wanted to honor God’s provision,” Greg says.
Ana adds, “It’s also a term for the sunrise, and we are certainly up early on the farm.”
An early start is necessary to tackle all the dairy’s tasks: general farm and equipment maintenance; taking care of the animals; milking them; then making, packaging, selling, and shipping the cheeses, all of which was initially done by Greg and Ana alone. They now have employees to help, but the most essential members of the Dayspring team have always been the sheep, who Ana and Greg treat almost like pets.
“Our sheep are very friendly, kinda dog-like really,” Ana says. “They come up to you and want to be hugged and petted. Many have names, and we have some real favorites that we really spoil.” Like Latte, who, right after birth, was abandoned by her mother. The Kellys took the lamb into their home and hand-raised her (which they sometimes must do for other lambs too). “For several weeks, she slept either with our bull terrier or our daughter,” Ana says. “To this day, we believe she thinks she’s either a dog or a person, not a sheep. You can tell she doesn’t think she should be out there with the other sheep.”
And yet Latte must coexist with her peers, currently around 200 of them, including new spring lambs. They’re all dairy sheep, but none is purebred, and that’s by design. “Our sheep are actually mutts,” Greg says. “We’ve done a lot of crossbreeding of several dairy breeds to get a stronger, more vigorous sheep, and that’s because in terms of sheep farms, we’re farther south than most. We’re wetter and warmer down here, so we needed to adapt for these conditions.”
A lower latitude presents some issues, but it also has advantages, including letting Dayspring Dairy sheep graze for a good bit longer than they would in harsher, more northern locations. “Our sheep have access to grass pretty much all year, and that’s their favorite food. Plus, they can be out in the sunshine a lot more, which they love,” Greg says. Dayspring has indoor spaces for the sheep when weather calls for it and when they’re birthing their lambs, and they also augment the sheep’s grass-heavy diet with alfalfa hay (grown locally in nearby Scottsboro, Alabama) and whole-kernel corn to ensure they get the calories needed to produce milk and stay healthy.
“We want them happy, and we work with their natural cycles. We’re not medicating them with hormones,” Ana says. This means the milking and cheese-making goes on only about eight months a year, when the sheep are lactating to feed their offspring. The other months are for breeding and for a bit of a break for all on the farm.
The Kellys’ dedication to the sheep’s well-being is delivering dividends they and their many customers can taste. According to Ana, all sheep’s milk is superior to other milks, especially for cheese-making. “Sheep’s milk is very rich and concentrated, so you get more cheese from a gallon of it than any other milk,” she says. “And it is so delicious; it doesn’t have any twang or any aftertaste. It’s got a nutty and slightly sweet finish.” Ana sometimes pours a little in her morning coffee.
And the sheep’s milk flowing at Dayspring is distinct. “The combinations of what our sheep eat is unique to our pastures, and it’s never exactly the same because it changes with the seasons. That continually affects their milk, which affects the flavor of the cheeses,” Greg says. These varying characteristics impart a taste of place that’s discernable in every product. “The summer grasses give our cheeses a floral note,” Greg says.
It’s why Dayspring Dairy’s feta doesn’t taste like any other feta. But this isn’t the only factor making Dayspring cheeses stand out; Ana’s attention to her craft helps too. When Dayspring began, she knew nothing about making cheese, but she immersed herself in information and hands-on training, taking classes in Vermont and then spending time working with a (now retired) cheese-maker in south Alabama.
Today, Dayspring offers both aged and fresh cheeses, including a Truffle Gouda, Manchego, Feta, a variety of flavored fresca spreads (such as lemon-fig and basil peppercorn) and Halloumi, a semihard cheese that’s delicious fried. The diversity ensures there’s never a dull day. “Every cheese is different,” Ana says. “The frescas are the easiest, but making halloumi can take 12 hours.”
Demand for its products—the dairy is selling close to 9,000 pounds of cheese each year—creates an endless amount of labor that also keeps boredom at bay. Greg says, “It is a whole lot of work, but we are working for ourselves—working our way and creating what we want. That’s not like working for someone else. It is extremely rewarding.”