"Get those rams in the paddock!"

That's the advice for anyone contemplating a farm conversion to dairy sheep. Maui Milk general manager Peter Gatley says this is the first step and there are no shortcuts.

"The lowest cost and lowest-risk part of a dairy sheep farm is breeding the animals. If farmers are interested, by putting some rams out this year they would have first cross hoggets to milk next year."

The recently converted multimillion-dollar Waikino Station, in the western bays of Lake Taupo, hit the headlines recently when it launched a major investment in genetic improvement and farm system development that was fully funded by Chinese company Be Well Farm Group.

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The launch attracted dozens of potential investors and distributors from overseas. It was followed by an open day that was attended by 300 people, including rural bankers and accountants.

Maui Milk is a joint venture between Be Well and the Waituhi Kuratau Trust. Be Well's president Chen Liang was present at the launch and confirmed that longer-term plans include a processing plant to add value to the sheep milk.

Cumulatively there are now 5000 sheep being milked twice daily by Maui Milk at Waikino and the milking enterprise at a farm owned by dairy sheep pioneers Waituhi Kuratau Trust.

Dairy sheep and sheep milking operations are not new to New Zealand but significant industry growth relies on increasing milk production. Peter, who already had over 20 years experience in livestock improvement methods involving genetics, travelled extensively researching sheep breeds and their potential contribution to New Zealand's fledging industry.

The Awassi from Israel, known for its hardiness and ability to resist dramatic temperature swings, along with the Lacaune, a high-yielding milk breed from France, were identified for mixing with the existing East Friesian that was in need of some fresh genetics to boost the gene pool. The result was a world first sheep milking breed named Southern Cross.

"We looked at the characteristics of the various breeds and gained access to the semen we wanted. Over time and different lambing seasons we worked towards creating a milking ewe that would be suited to New Zealand's conditions. The relevant traits that we were searching for included milk volume, temperament, longevity," said Peter.

The benefits of sheep's milk include having 45 per cent more protein than dairy. The milk is able to be digested more rapidly and can be an alternative for those who have trouble digesting cow milk. Because sheep have a much lower level of nitrogen leaching than cattle, the nitrogen discharge allowances run at about 15kg/N ha in contrast to dairy farms that typically have 40+kg/N ha.

The sheep produce milk as yearlings rather than two-year-olds, they typically have more than one lamb and milking can be quicker as milk let-down is rapid. These combine to provide a cost efficient return on investment — an important consideration when most of the milking technology needs to be imported.

"Everyone seems to agree with the objectives of sheep dairying such as diversification, high value product, stable farmgate payout and environmental sustainability.

"New Zealand expertise in both sheep farming and pastoral dairying are being combined to deliver on the potential, and the first job is to breed the sheep. If this is delayed, no amount of money can turn back the clock," says Peter.