New Zealand’s dairy sheep industry took a big step forward when a major investment in genetic improvement and farm system development was formally launched at Waikino Station on the western shores of Lake Taupo.
A ribbon-cutting ceremony was attended by dozens of potential investors and distributors from overseas, and a farmer open day attracted 300, including rural bankers and accountants.
The investment has been made by the Chinese partner in the Maui Milk joint venture with local dairy sheep pioneers, the Waituhi Kuratau Trust, whose farm also borders the lake.
The JV has milked 3000 ewes on that property since 2015 and lessons learned are being implemented in the green-field development at Waikino Station which adds another 2000 ewes to the tally.
The new conversion at Waikino Station is nestled against a block of native bush with stunning views over Lake Taupo and surrounded by fields of pasture, plantain and lucerne. It includes two Aztech barns with feed conveyors, and a purpose-built lamb rearing facility.
The location of the development, so close to the lake, highlighted points made about environmental sustainability.
The farm has an even lower NDA (Nitrogen Discharge Allowance) than most of the traditional sheep and beef farms in the catchment because some was sold by a previous owner, but the only role of cattle is controlling pasture quality, so this is no impediment for the new enterprise.
Waikino Station was purchased to showcase a system that can be implemented by others. General Manager, Peter Gatley, and Jake Chardon, Geneticist, have been involved from the outset, buying the property on behalf of the investors and scouring the world for the best genes to create a milking ewe for local conditions.
Gatley says there is plenty of interest in the concept.
“New Zealand needs diversification in agricultural exports and every farmer wants a high value product, stable pricing and environmental sustainability. We admire what the dairy goat industry has achieved, but we want to capitalise on New Zealand expertise in both sheep farming and pastoral systems for milk production”.
A new breed of milking sheep
Genetics is the first focus of attention for the business which has plenty of experience on board. Gatley spent over 20 years in LIC and founded Deer Improvement.
Marion Benoit brings a Masters degree in genetics from the centre of the milking sheep universe in the south of France.
Chardon is known world-wide as a Geneticist and Chief Executive of Dutch co-operative CRV, one of the truly international genetics companies.
Gatley and Chardon met when LIC and CRV formed a strategic alliance in the mid-1990s, and Chardon came to New Zealand to semi-retire on a small sheep farm in the hills near Cambridge.
He ended up running the Deer Improvement genetic programme and also consults to the Dairy Goat Co-operative.
In 2017 a large volume of East Friesian embryos and Lacaune semen was imported from the UK and France respectively.
These two breeds are complemented by the Awassi, another northern hemisphere breed, and all three will contribute to formation of a specialist hybrid to be known as the Southern Cross™ breed, selected on performance in New Zealand.
Chardon says that, “until now, sheep milking in this country has depended on a very small sample of 1980s East Friesian genetics that arrived in 1992 to put some milk in our meat breeds. No one has ever milked a world class dairy sheep in New Zealand, but we now have lambs that carry those genes, and they will milk in spring this year”.
After a life-long career breeding dairy cattle, it is clear that Chardon relishes the opportunity afforded by a species than can be milked as yearlings and have more than one progeny. “And our new generation has been sired by progeny tested rams from the biggest and best breeding programme in the world, so we are about to leap ahead 40 years”.
The Lacaune is expected to make the biggest contribution to the new hybrid because it has been subject to rigorous selection on all of the relevant traits.
These include milk volume, components, udder conformation, temperament, feet and legs, and longevity.
Farmer interest in converting to milking sheep
A hot topic among visiting farmers at the open day was profitability. Gatley points out that the parallels with other types of farming are strong.
“Once you have decided on your farm system, the costs are largely fixed. We already know what the expenses look like, but there is a lot of potential to increase income from milk. In the past, large scale operators in this country have struggled with lactation yields per ewe of only 100 to 150 litres. Barn systems in other countries put out 600 litres plus, but we look to the hybrid grazing system in France where 400 litres is standard.
“Grazing offers us competitive advantage in production cost, but it is also key to our product positioning. It is also the preference of most potential new suppliers in New Zealand. They don’t want to spend their life in a barn”.
“The system at the Waituhi Kuratau farm is all outdoors, there are no barns. The system at Waikino is also a pastoral system, and the barns are there for lambing and occasional use when there are climate extremes. Having both systems enables us to compare the two. We may find that both work well, and it becomes a matter of preference, just as it is in the dairy cattle industry”.
Payment is expected to be based on milksolids.
“Like the dairy goat industry we measure total solids including lactose, and we aspire to match the dairy goat payout at around $17/kg. Sheep milk is about 18% solids so that works out at $3/litre, so the prospect of a ewe earning over $1000 is possible, but two things need to happen.
"We need to demonstrate a big lift in yield, and our marketers need to perform well to tap into the top end of the market. The dairy goat guys have done it, but they have 30 years head start”.
A milking demonstration impressed everyone as ewes competed to get on the 64-bale internal rotary which was imported from France. At a rate of 1000 per hour with two milkers cupping, and automatic cup removers, it was an impressive performance.
Several observers commented on the advantage of having only two teats to deal with, and all were surprised at how contented the animals were with so many people in attendance and with cameras flashing.
Maui Milk does not expect any new conversions to take place this year, but advises farmers who are contemplating a move in 2019 or 2020 to first think about breeding the sheep.
“The lowest cost and lowest risk part of the whole exercise is breeding the animals, but it takes time, and no amount of money can turn back the clock. Putting some rams out this year would provide first cross hoggets to milk next year, or first cross two tooths in 2020 backed up by second cross hoggets. We have rams available from our ET and AI programmes, and potential new suppliers can lease these to get underway”.