The New Zealand sheep dairy industry has taken a huge step forward with the launch of sheep milk toddler formula by Danone, a global giant in early childhood nutrition.
Milk from free-range, grass-fed dairy sheep is supplied by Maui Milk from their two farms running 6000 ewes on the western shores of Lake Taupō.
The company is now offering multi-year contracts to new conversions in the greater Waikato with the aim of doubling milk volume next season.
Maui Milk was formed five years ago to satisfy demand for alternative milks, particularly in Asia where many people find cow milk hard to digest. The company highlights the natural advantages of sheep milk which contains much higher levels of most nutrients than either cow or goat milk.
Chairman Paul McGilvary explains that Whole Milk Powder sold under the Maui Milk brand was a stepping-stone during the establishment phase, and an expanded product range was always expected.
"The opportunity to supply the early childhood nutrition market is exciting," says Paul.
"The educated, affluent consumer wants grass-fed dairy for their children, and they focus strongly on environmental sustainability and animal welfare."
General manager Peter Gatley says the company has made huge strides in farm productivity improvement.
"Progress has been spectacular," he says.
"Until recently it was impossible to breed a modern dairy sheep in New Zealand because the genetics simply did not exist here.
"That all changed when we imported semen and embryos from Europe. Sheep can milk as yearlings and they have multiple offspring.
"We're making 50 years progress in about five years."
Maui Milk is actively seeking new supply within two hours of Hamilton where the milk is processed at Innovation Park.
Paul says there is interest from sheep and beef farms around Taupō, Rotorua and the King Country, but mostly from Waikato dairy operations.
"Comparison with a typical Waikato dairy farm shows a better return per hectare, especially on smaller farms in the 50-80 ha range," says Peter.
"The system is all grazing, no barns are required, and the lactation is shorter than for cows.
"A lot of farmers are also attracted because the environmental footprint is similar to traditional sheep and beef farming.
"Conversion from dairy cattle is low-cost and we are offering multi-year contracts at a payout equivalent to $3 per litre.
"We can supply pregnant ewes during winter so a farm can dry off the cows in autumn and be milking sheep in spring."
Paul says the company is working on complementary products to sell under its own brand, and is clearly buoyant about the prospects.
"Whatever form the product takes, we see grass-fed sheep milk as the perfect fit for brand New Zealand.
"It's what we're famous for. Grass. Sheep. And milk."