Friday, December 8, 2023

Waikato sheep milk sector expands

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Growth in Waikato’s sheep milking sector has jumped with seven newly converted farms to start production this spring.
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Maui Milk has four new farms this season, bringing its total operation to six including its existing farms while Spring Sheep Milking has three new farms, lifting its total to seven.

Maui Milk operations general manager Peter Gatley said enough milking ewes have been bred by Maui Milk for its new farms, which are at Pokeno, Te Aroha, Cambridge and Otorohanga.

The farms will have roughly 1000 ewes each and will start milking in a few months.

“Off a very low base we’re growing very rapidly. Even that doesn’t meet the demand for product. We’ve got standing orders for product several years in advance.”

The new farms should double the company’s milk production this season.

Three of Maui Milk’s new farms are converting from bovine dairy and the fourth is from sheep meat. All will graze the sheep on pasture.

He expects another five or six conversions to be in place for the 2021-22 season.

The industry has moved beyond being boutique. 

Maui Milk supplies French dairy giant Danone with its product, which is sold in at a higher premium than goat or cow infant formula, he said.

“We’ve got orders in the market for several years in advance and we’ve got to grow more to even begin to meet those orders. Our initial goal is just to achieve critical mass.”

Reaching that will require dozens of new farms, he said.

Spring Sheep is also looking for more suppliers for the 2021-22 season thanks to growing demand in Asia.

“The alternative milk category has been experiencing very strong growth for many years. With sheep milk we’re looking to create an industry that is sustainably matched to this demand as well as producing a product that is more easily digestible and better for our consumers,” Spring Sheep chief executive Scottie Chapman said.

“We’ve also seen further growth with the demand for our products rising considerably through the covid-19 outbreak, especially with many governments backing the consumption of dairy for immune health.” 

Its three new farms will move 250 hectares from traditional cow to sheep dairy.

Spring Sheep milk supply general manager Thomas Macdonald said the new farms can expect to produce 250 litres a ewe as a starting yield given the nature of learning a new farming system and adapting to sheep dairy farming. 

Long-run yields of 350-400 litres a ewe are expected in coming seasons.

Gatley said farmers are looking to convert because of market volatility in cow dairy, concerns over looming environmental rules that could make bovine dairy farming harder, the chance to be part of a new industry and lay a foundation for succession planning.

“The new generation like a lot of aspects of farming as a career but some of them are particularly excited by the challenge of a new opportunity.”

The conversions involve highly experienced farmers.

“We’re really excited to have these people involved because they will teach us how to farm.”

The conversions are all less than 100ha and converting to sheep milking means the farms go from being borderline unprofitable bovine dairy farms to profitable sheep milking businesses.

There is low capital outlay with dairy farms generally able to retrofit their equipment to make it suitable for sheep.

Maui is getting weekly inquiries from interested farmers and there is intense interest in the conversions. There is also growing interest in the South Island, where Maui has supplied some farmers with genetics.

“There’s a lot of interest in Canterbury. It’s good, free-draining sheep country without facial eczema.”

Meanwhile, the new spray dryer being built at Waikato Innovation Park, where both companies send their milk for processing, is being commissioned and will be ready to take the increase in milk this season. 

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