Saturday, December 2, 2023

Group aims to boost sheep milk

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Most people in the South Island associate the iconic high country sheep with meat and wool but that is changing as enterprising pioneers establish sheep-milking operations. Founding member of the Canterbury Dairy Sheep Association David Waghorn talked to Annette Scott.     
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Sheep milker David Waghorn is confident the Canterbury Dairy Sheep Association will drive opportunities for local sheep milking farmers.

Canterbury has fallen behind the North Island in developing a sheep dairy industry, missing out on investment in infrastructure and research funding, he says.

The association, set up in September, is charged with changing that.

Waghorn notes sheep milking infrastructure investors are targeting the North Island.

In Canterbury there are a number of people like him who have sheep specifically bred for milking and are looking for a more secure market.

While farmers with reasonable infrastructure can convert quite easily to sheep milking, putting in the processing plant is the big cost and that’s where the association comes in.

It will be a single voice providing information and a path to meet compliance requirements.

“The idea is to be a single entity to help set standards for the industry here.

“To be successful we need a good story, a good reputation in animal welfare and environmental stewardship and to do that we need to set our own standards.”

There have been high-profile investments in the North Island with Pamu and Maui Milk in Waikato but it has been a mixed story in the South Island.

Several processing and marketing plans in Canterbury failed to get off the ground.

“My feeling is the time is right now for Canterbury. With identified markets and environmental compliance understanding it’s time to move forward.”

The plan is to ultimately pool supply to a single processor.

“We are still all working out the real potential in sheep milk and with the current cheese-making demand it won’t be long before cheese is saturated.

“We need to be looking at yoghurt, ice-cream and infant formula milk powder – even nutrient-based products.”

Most Canterbury sheep milkers want to be pasture-based, working towards breeding a sheep specifically suited to local conditions.

Consumers are becoming more educated and aware of the different options available and are actively looking for alternatives with beneficial health properties.

Sheep milk is a considered option for those who have difficulty digesting cows’ milk.

And with twice the protein of cows’ milk it is easier to digest.

It is also naturally an A2-type milk free from the A1-beta casein protein, which has been associated with digestive discomfort such as bloating, found in some cows’ milk.   

With an increasing number of people asking how they can buy grass-fed New Zealand sheep milk, Waghorn is confident the region can develop new domestic markets with export potential down the track.

In the Middle East and Europe sheep’s milk has been used for centuries.

Gram for gram its superiority lies in its composition and when compared in relative terms to goats’ and cows’ milk it has double the protein and with the fat globules in sheep milk smaller is more easily digested.

Sheep milk contains about a third more energy than goats’ or cows’ milk, making it favourable for high-performance athletes.

With the help of Primary Growth Partnership funding, Lincoln-based Food South is researching market development.

The association is also working on securing funding for more hands-on help in niche market production for its members, Waghorn says.

“The big corporates in Maui Milk and Spring Milk are making a lot of formula but for us in Canterbury, where we are small-scale players compared to these, we are focused more on niche products.

“As a group we are optimistic but to be successful we need to get it right now and be market-led.”

Realising the full potential of sheep milking in Canterbury also depends on a processor putting a stake in the ground – plans are afoot but still under wraps. 

A geologist by profession and previously living in Pakistan, India and Indonesia, Waghorn always had a desire to go farming and over time he bought blocks of land here and there.

His Ardleish Farm now comprises a 315 hectare rolling hills property at Glenroy and a 200ha home block at Hororata, both largely leased as dairy support units.   

While Waghorn was working in Dubai stage one of Central Plains Water came on track.

“I came back to develop our own block, loved it so much I decided to stay.”

But the water was going to be a significant expense.

“I needed to look at other options to pay for the water. My situation was dryland and now with water I needed to make it pay. 

“I thought we know a lot about sheep and dairy technology in NZ that surely we can match the two.”

Very quickly sheep became a part of his farm environment plan helping meet water quality and nutrient loss targets because of its low environmental footprint compared with bovine dairy farming. 

Waghorn and his wife Meily are growing their milking flock to 1200 ewes, based on the European breeds East Friesian and Lacaune.

Lacaune ewes in France can produce four litres of milk a day. 

NZ dairy sheep typically have a 120 to 180-day lactation producing about two litres a day.

Waghorn says that can be improved with the introduction of good genetics and a dairy-cross sheep better suited to local conditions.

“East Friesian and Lacaune tend to be more thin-skinned and so feel the cold more than NZ-bred sheep.”

Ultimately, the couple plan to lamb the flock indoors but have a completely outdoor grazing system.

“We want to be all pasture-based rather than have the cost of infrastructure and it’s also more natural and healthy.

“The challenge is get a more hardy milking breed here and collectively come to our own version of a Kiwi-cross cow, different to the breed in the North Island,” Waghorn said.

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