Key Points:

    • Sheep dairying fastest growing livestock farming option in NZ
    • New breed of milking sheep officially recognised
    • More farmers converting from cow dairy to sheep
    • Multi-year contracts of $3 per litre on offer (ie milk income of $1000 per ewe)

Sheep dairying is said to be the fastest growing livestock farming option in New Zealand, and the availability of advanced genetics is underpinning farmer confidence.

All three of the world's leading dairy breeds have been combined on a Coopworth base to provide the industry with a milking ewe that promises to do for sheep dairy what the Kiwicross has done for cow dairy in this country.

The new breed is now officially recognised by the NZ Sheepbreeders' Association as the Southern Cross.

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Geneticist Jake Chardon says the new hybrid capitalises on hundreds of years of selection pressure in the East Friesian, Awassi and Lacaune breeds.

"In particular, the Lacaune breed from France is backed by a large and highly sophisticated progeny test programme that aligns closely with our requirements for grazing ability, high components and good udders. We're seeing the benefit of the French programme and we're also getting hybrid vigour".

An Awassi ram. Photo / Supplied
An Awassi ram. Photo / Supplied

Chardon is well qualified to comment. Born on a dairy farm in the Netherlands, he studied in the USA before returning to spend the bulk of his career with Holland Genetics (now CRV), rising to the position of Chief Executive.

For the past 17 years he has lived on his small sheep farm near Cambridge, working part-time for LIC where he co-founded Deer Improvement, a leading provider of genetics for NZ venison producers.

He also consults to the Dairy Goat Cooperative, so dairy sheep is the fourth species he has focused on.

"Until recently, New Zealand sheep milkers were dependent on a tiny shipment of old East Friesian genetics. Everything descended from a trailer load of rams and ewes that were brought in to lift fecundity and put more milk into our meat and wool breeds. They weren't expected to create a sheep dairy industry. That all changed in the last three years when the door opened to importation of semen and embryos from the UK and Europe".

In addition to 3000 artificial inseminations carried out by Southern Cross, more than 200 Southern Cross rams have been run with ewes by several farmers seeking to create progeny to meet demand for more milk.

This number is expected to more than double in 2020 as Maui Milk takes on new suppliers.

A Lacaune lamb. Photo / Supplied
A Lacaune lamb. Photo / Supplied

Maui Milk General Manager, Peter Gatley, says the company is offering multi-year contracts with payout locked in at $3/litre.

"This reflects the forward commitments on our milk and there's no way we can satisfy demand in the next few years. At that payout, a ewe can earn over $1000 in milk income, so it's pretty attractive.

"New Zealand needs diversification in exports. We need higher value. Farmers need payout stability and to be able to meet environmental regulations."

Milking at Waikino Station. Photo / Supplied
Milking at Waikino Station. Photo / Supplied

Gatley says the typical enquiry is from small Waikato dairy cattle farms lacking scale for cow dairying, or larger properties in the south Waikato or Central Plateau that are running drystock and looking for better returns.

"Farmers are aware of the success of dairy goats. It's a great export option to countries where cow milk is not traditional, and where a lot of people have problems digesting cow milk. Goat and sheep milk products are in strong demand, but the farmers we're talking to prefer to farm sheep on grass rather than goats in a barn. And the high-end consumer wants grass-fed. This is also a better fit with brand New Zealand. We're famous for sheep, for dairy, and for free range farming. Here it is, all together".