Saturday, April 13, 2024

Dairy with a delicate touch

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The business of milking sheep is all about happy, skipping and jumping sheep for Felicity Cameron and at her Waikato dairy the welfare of her sheep seems to be paying off. Gerhard Uys reports.
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If ever there was a Jill of all trades who ended up master of one, Felicity Cameron is it. 

Cameron grew up in a Hawke’s Bay farming family. From a young age she took every opportunity to gain farming experience from family members and friends who also made a living from the land. 

At 17 she began dairy farming full time. 

By 19 she was leasing her first farm and set up a calf-rearing business, raising several thousand calves. 

After two years of calf-rearing the owner sold the land so she reluctantly packed up and again turned to dairy work. She spent the next few years contract milking and working with sheep. 

She then decided to travel, landed in Canada and worked on a buffalo farm for several months. 

“Mad things,” she chuckles about the buffalo bred for meat.

“I’ve always loved the outdoors, being around animals and working the land. 

“I love the challenges of farming but I am easy-going and take them as they come. In farming you are also always around a community of good people,” she says. 

After returning from Canada and while raising dairy goats she heard Spring Sheep Milk Co, a business that both produces sheep milk and markets its sheep milk products for export, needed farmers to help grow its milk supply. Spring Sheep produces mainly fortified milk powder formula and calcium tablets. 

She now manages 55ha near Hamilton and is one of three farms supplying direct to Spring Sheep. 

This season Cameron and her two female staff milked 600 East Friesian ewes. 

“The East Friesian is an ideal milk sheep breed and Spring Sheep has also crossed with other breeds from Europe, including the French Lacaune milk breed to further improve performance.”

Unlike many international milk breeds often housed in barns for parts of the year, Cameron’s sheep and their progeny are outdoors so need to be hardy to adapt to all seasonal challenges. 

As there is ample demand from consumers in Asian markets for sheep milk products she wants to scale up her operations next season. 

“After milking, some ewes like to simply hang around the milk shed. I have a backing gate that I have never had to use as they come in by themselves,” she says. 

Another exciting part of the operation is that by breeding up Cameron can see genetic improvement in the flock as it happens. Selecting for milk traits brings about the most obvious changes with improvement of udders being the most visible.

“We do udder scoring and developed a scale for NZ sheep by adapting traits scales from Spain, France and Italy.”

Another change that comes from selecting for milk traits is that milking sheep have less wool. They are, however, shorn twice a year, before lambing and again in the peak of summer. 

“Many ewes have no wool on their bellies. The crossbreeds also have no wool on their tails and therefore we choose not to dock.”

Though there has been enormous genetic improvement there are one or two changes the next few breeding seasons will address. 

“Selecting for milking traits means udders will change so they can milk out faster. As the breeding programme advances there is a particular emphasis on the milkability of the ewes and the overall efficiency of the farm system.”

Cameron’s farm is one of Spring Sheep’s nucleus farms and a lot of genetic monitoring takes place there so data collecting is an ongoing part of operations. 

Spring Sheep interprets a lot of the data and uses it to plan genetic improvement. 

But body condition scoring after lambing when ewes are drying off and before tupping allows her to see how a ewe performs across an entire production season. It also allows her to make informed decisions about feeding. 

With Cameron running almost 1000 ewes on a small block she feels strongly that dairy farmers and small block owners can successfully run a business on small pockets of land between 30 and 100 hectares. 

“Many have tried different avenues to make money on these smaller blocks. Dairy sheep is a good way to go. 

“Many of the farms this size have old, existing dairy sheds that simply need to be adapted. To accommodate sheep these blocks need minimal changes to fencing infrastructure,” she says.

Something that might be important to farm owners is that sheep are also easier on the land. They don’t pug soils like cattle can. Sheep also do not cause as much nitrogen leaching as dairy cows.

“We see concerns about the environment in the news all the time and have to take it into consideration. 

“We need to adapt how we farm and match land use to farms in a way that allows them to prosper for future generations, both environmentally and economically.”

It is important to Cameron that everything she produces is used optimally. 

So all lambs on the farm are reared. Rams not kept for breeding are reared by contractors for the traditional lamb market. All wool is sold to traditional NZ wool markets.

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