NZ Farmer - Sheep-milking gets a hoof-hold in Waikato's dairying's heartland

Written by Gerald Piddock

The burgeoning sheep-milking industry has upped its stake in Waikato's dairying heartland.

Two new farms will be ready to milk this season. Both are near Cambridge and are owned by Taupō-based Spring Sheep Milking Co, a joint venture between state-owned enterprise Pamu and marketing firm SLC Group.

Spring Sheep announced plans to establish the two farms in December and to grow sheep-milking from a handful of exporters to at least 60 farms by 2030.

Over the past several months, there has been a huge influx of interest in sheep-milking from Waikato farmers, Spring Sheep business manager Thomas Macdonald says.

The reasons are varied.

Some face a generational change and the owner's children are not interested in milking cows. Others see it as a means to keep farming their properties while keeping to new environmental limits that are coming from the Healthy Rivers plan change 1.

Sheep-milking conversions are not classified as an intensification of land use and therefore do not need a resource consent.

Farmers would still have to follow all of the other rules under the Healthy Rivers plan change, including developing a farm plan.

Sheep-milking is an industry on the rise. Nationally, there are about 20,000 sheep being milked and the main players in Waikato are Spring Sheep and Maui Milk. In the South Island, Blue River Dairy in Southland has been operating for 15 years.

Builders are putting the final touches to Monavale, Spring Sheep's 50-hectare farm that will run as both a commercial operation and as a demonstration farm, holding experiments and trials to further the company's knowledge about how to best farm milking sheep in the Waikato.

"We called it a pilot farm because we realised that as the industry was growing, we needed a place to demonstrate the farming system and its genetic potential. It's a commercial enterprise with a research focus," Macdonald says.

The farm should be finished by early September.

"We drove in the gate here in September last year for the first time and it was a maize block. Every bit of infrastructure and fence has been planned and organised over the last 10 months."

Monavale runs as a hybrid farm system, where the 840 milking sheep are housed inside a large barn pre- and post-lambing. Spring Sheep's second 50ha farm is about 20 minutes away. It is an all-outdoor operation and the sheep are milked in a converted cow dairy shed.

Macdonald says this system was the more likely scenario for any dairy farmers looking to convert to sheep-milking and will allow the company to compare the two farm types.

The ewes at Monavale are let out on to the paddocks from October during the day for rotational grazing and are returned to the barn at night. During summer, the ewes stay indoors for shade and head to the paddocks at night.

Monavale's barn looks similar to those used on dairy goat farms. In the centre is a large rectangular pen housing the older ewes. Most are still pregnant and a temporary fence separates these sheep from those that have lambed. The latter is called the milkers mob.

As more ewes have their lambs, more join the milkers mob until none is left in the pregnant mob.

On each side in separate pens are younger in-lamb ewe hoggets who are the older ewes' genetically superior daughters.

The older ewes are a mix of New Zealand East Friesian and imported European genetics, whereas the daughters are all-European genetics.

The ewes and their genetic potential are what Macdonald is proudest of, because they could help form the future New Zealand sheep-milking industry.

New Zealand's sheep-milking genetics are decades behind European farmers, who have a long-established industry and have sheep that can produce 500 litres a season.

Macdonald hopes to have the Monavale flock milking at 300L. Staff breed the sheep for milk yield, udder confirmation and foot hardiness and Macdonald believes the sheep in the shed could form the basis of a viable future industry.

"And the genetics are here to make it happen.

"For us, it's about adopting the European genetics to New Zealand farming systems. It's about building a New Zealand sheep-milking breed and adapting the European genetics to New Zealand conditions."

Macdonald said there is huge interest to see how the younger sheep perform.

"Next month, we'll be firing them through the [milk] baler and we'll know if it's worked. We're pretty nervous, but we're also excited."

The ewes are fed a blend of home-grown silage, lupins, canola and maize four times a day.

Further down the barn among the older ewes, a newborn minutes old gets to its feet in the soft miscanthus bedding. Its mother licks it clean as it has its first feeding.

Metres away, another ewe feeds her triplets born earlier that day. The lambs stay with their mothers for about two days before they are taken and reared in a separate barn adjacent to the ewe barn.

Both male and female lambs are reared. The males are eventually sold as store lambs to sheep farmers and the best of the females are kept as replacements.

Experienced sheep-milking farmer John Ryrie, who helped set up Spring Sheep's existing farm near Taupō, will manage Monavale and he will have two staff under him, as well as seasonal staff to assist with lamb-rearing.

The farm's seasonal cycle runs the same as a traditional sheep farm. The ewes are mated in late summer and are lambed in spring.

The ewes will be milked twice a day for about 220 days through a 24-aside low-line milking parlour equipped with automatic feeders. Each sheep's milk yield will be monitored and recorded using RFID technology.

The milk will then be processed at the Waikato Innovation Park at Ruakura, where it will be turned into high-value probiotic powder for the Asian market.

The completion of the new farms is timely. Earlier this month, Spring Sheep signed a memorandum of understanding with South Korean company Lotte Food to export children's sheep milk products there next year and infant formula in 2020. It plans to eventually supply the Chinese market as well.

The building blocks had been put in place and soon, Macdonald will see if the work has paid off.

"The first tanker will come in later this month and that will be an exciting moment."