Our farm is called Etxelekua. 'Etxe' means house and 'lekua' means place in Basque, and this is where we have the dairy and the sheep. You can find us in Urdazubi/Urdax, a village in the North of Navarra on the border between France and the Baztán Valley, right at the foot of the Pyrenees. This privileged location makes mountain tourism one of the main socio-economic activities in our area.
An interesting fact about sheep grazing in the Basque Country is that it's based around the farmhouse, where traditionally villagers would keep a few sheep for cheese and meat, but never a large flock.
Interestingly, my father Manuel, a lifelong shepherd, married my mother Maribel, who brought the cheese-making tradition to Etxelekua, and they merged two traditionally separate activities: the grazing of Latxa sheep and cheese-making in the farmhouses. In 1990, they started to sell their cheeses, and three out of six of their children continue to do the same today.
Latxa sheep wouldn't cope with an intensive system, which is why the work in our dairy is based around their biological needs. Ewes usually give birth to just a single lamb at the end of November. The lamb is kept with its mother during its first month of life, feeding on the first milk (colostrum), which is of unmatched nutritional quality. After this month, we choose the lambs that we want for our flock and we sell the rest to a cooperative, which will sell them to replace other flocks or to the meat market.
When the lambs have grown up, we begin the six-month milking process, during which the sheep graze around our farmhouse practically every day. During this time, we supplement our lambs' diet with feed and whey from the dairy while they learn to feed on the pastures. With the exception of days with very bad weather, our sheep spend the day and night in the open air, except for those that are being milked or have recently given birth, who spend the night sheltered in our facilities (where they always have at least 1. 5m² each) and the day outdoors. The milking season coincides with the cheese-making season, when there's a lot of activity in our farmhouse, usually between December and June.
Our sheep are between three and four years old on average, and to protect their health and well-being we carry out two important procedures for their hygiene. The first is shearing in May, so that they don't get too hot in the summer and also to check that they're free of lice and other pests. The second is docking new-born lambs to prevent infections (cutaneous myiasis) from the build-up of dirt in the wool and also to ensure greater milking hygiene.
After the milking season, the ewes usually spend the next few months in freedom in the nearby mountains, until they give birth to a lamb again. When it's not milking season, we control the natural ripening of the cheese, manage sales, offer guided tours of the dairy and take care of our flock in the mountains.