'Get those rams in the paddock!" That's the advice from Maui Milk general manager Peter Gatley to anyone contemplating converting to dairy sheep.

"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, near Lake Taupo, hit the headlines recently when it launched a major investment in genetic improvement and farm system development fully funded by Chinese company Be Well Farm Group.

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

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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 longer-term plans included a processing plant to add value to the sheep milk.

Maui Milk and dairy sheep pioneer Waituhi Kuratau Trust milk 5000 sheep twice daily.
Mr Gatley, with 20-plus years' experience in livestock improvement methods involving genetics, has 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," Mr Gatley said.

The benefits of sheep's milk include having 45 per cent more protein than dairy. The milk can 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' 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 provide a cost efficient return on investment — an important consideration when most of the milking technology needs to be imported.

"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."