The sheep milk industry has the potential to be a successful income earner for farmers, AgResearch senior scientist Dr Sue McCoard says.

She and her colleagues have spent the past five years researching various aspects of the dairy sheep industry, including lamb-rearing practices, with a ''no lamb left behind'' philosophy, she said.

''The sheep milk industry is in an expansive phase.''

Although sheep milking has been around for about 20 years, including in Southland, there is a resurgence in interest from farmers looking at ovine dairying.

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Nationally, about 20,000 head of sheep are being milked.

Products include infant formula, milk powder and cheese.

Dr McCoard and colleague Dr David Stevens were in Gore recently to run a workshop on lamb-rearing and dairy sheep.

AgResearch and other bodies have partnered with the Ministry for Business, Innovation and Employment, which provided funding for the six-year programme to support the emerging industry.

''We have been working on some of the big challenges for the industry, such as optimising lamb-rearing practices,'' she said.

Dr McCoard said they had looked at different lamb-rearing systems, including the impact of removing the lambs from their mothers after two days and artificially rearing using different systems including automatic feeders, the amount of milk fed pre - and post -weaning and age of weaning, or leaving them with their mothers and weaning early.

''Labour units and different infrastructure requirements for high and low input systems are also considered.''

They looked at the labour units and the different infrastructure requirements for high and low input systems.

''A major focus in addition to the growth and health of the animal, is the physiological impact of the feeds and feeding systems on the development of the gut as well as the metabolic and endocrine systems, immune functions, and mammary development, which is important for future milking production.

''There is no one 'best' system - our aim is to explore the different options to support the diversity of farming systems.

''Ewes have 25 per cent of their total milk yield in the first month of lactation and will use a lot of milk feeding their lambs.''

Key drivers of lamb-rearing practices are strong welfare, ethical and economic outcomes, including low mortality, growth performance and health, and cost efficiencies and future milk (replacements) and meat (surplus lambs) production.

''However, there is room for further improvement.''

They also researched the milking breeds, including East Friesian, and Lacunes.

''There has been a big drive from the industry to import new genetics for milk production,'' she said.

Future research will include looking at the impact of changing feeds and feeding systems early in life on the lifetime performance.

''A cheap input does not necessarily make a good lamb.''

She said the key lamb rearing messages included how critical the importance of attention to detail was at all levels of the operation.

Farmers needed to be prepared, to plan ahead and plan their feeding system up to a year ahead, to ensure the ewes are fed well to support good lamb birth weights and viability, ensure staff training, to develop an animal health and feed management plans and rearing infrastructure, e.g. good housing facilities with good ventilation, and bedding.