New research is adding weight to the benefits of sheep milk as New Zealand's industry continues to expand its base and reach to the world.
New Zealand now boasts more than 30,000 sheep for milking at 16 different producers, providing quality sheep milk products to overseas markets, and a distinctive New Zealand dairy sheep breed, Dairymeade, has recently been registered.
In the past few months, new sheep dairy genetic material has been successfully imported into New Zealand for the first time since the 1990s, to add to the quality of the country's stock and improving New Zealand's ability to compete on a global scale.
At the 2017 Sheep Milk New Zealand Conference in Palmerston North this week, scientists from AgResearch, Massey University, University of Otago and Callaghan Innovation are presenting the latest research into sheep milk, including science made possible by a $6m fund from the Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment (MBIE) - "Boosting exports of the emerging NZ dairy sheep industry".
"While sheep milk - and products from it like cheese - may still seem an unusual concept to many New Zealanders, its qualities are already well recognised around the world," says AgResearch scientist Linda Samuelsson.
"There are a number of pieces of research being presented at the conference that further underline the benefits sheep milk has to offer when it comes to nutrition and digestion, and how we can enhance milk production."
"For example, in a study using rats we found that sheep milk made solids pass through the animals' systems rapidly - which we'd expect would mean improved gut comfort, reduced constipation and general improvement for a sluggish gut."
"In another study with rats, sheep milk proteins were more readily digested than cow milk proteins, with higher levels of essential amino acids. A further study shows a major waste stream from sheep cheese - whey - has the potential to be processed into a stable base ingredient for beverages or soup stocks under controlled circumstances."
Have a listen to Linda Samuelsson chat to The Country's Jamie Mackay in the interview above.
Associate Professor Craig Prichard, from Massey University, says aside from the health benefits, there is exciting potential for the development of innovative new sheep milk products such as cheeses.
"We know the sheep milk products have distinctive characteristics depending on what region of New Zealand they come from, so there is a real opportunity to develop some really distinctive regional offerings that you wouldn't find anywhere else."
The 2017 Sheep Milk New Zealand Conference featured Gilles Frégeat, General Manager of Upra Lacaune (the French sheep dairy breeding society) as the keynote speaker.
The conference, with sponsors including Maui Milk, Kingsmeade Cheese, GEA, Farmlands Co-operative, AGMARDT and ABS (Animal Breeding Services), is a part of the New Zealand Agrifood Investment Week 2017 - find out more here.