Friday, December 1, 2023

Different sort of sheep farm produces dairy and DNA 

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Pioneering sheep milk pair have refined genetics over the decades.
Miles and Janet King think the time is right for them to pass on their sheep milking business to its next owner.
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Janet and Miles King’s start in the sheep milking trade got off to a rough start. 

They had stocked their farm with milking ewes, bred from crossing Coopworth ewes with East Friesian genetics, only for the company that agreed to buy their milk to have a change of heart.

The couple decided to have a go at making cheese themselves and Kingsmeade Artisan Dairy was born.

Being early adopters, the Kings had to make their own way through the challenges of compliance and food safety.

“The compliance people only thought of cows, of dairy factories dealing with cow’s milk,” Miles says.

“We luckily got quite a lot of help from what was MAF [the then Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry].” 

Miles knows so much about the process now that he’s often consulted by compliance staff looking for sheep dairy expertise.

The novelty of the operation attracted a lot of media interest from the likes of Country Calendar and Rural Delivery.

But it was tough going, with the interest slow to turn into sales.

The Kings sold through supermarkets to begin with but soon found restaurants and farmers market shoppers were the keenest buyers.

“The cost of making cheese out from sheep milk was a lot higher than cow’s milk,” Miles says. “So we wouldn’t discount. It was very hard so we got out of most of those [supermarkets], although we still sell to the likes of Common Sense and the more upmarket supermarkets.”

Providing restaurants with bulk, high-end cheeses was also a success – until covid-19 came along.

“We did have a really tough time over covid when all the restaurants were shut,” Janet says.

“That’s caused us quite a bit of angst the past three years and we’re coming out of that now. It was very difficult. I know you shouldn’t have your all your eggs in one basket, but the nature of the product and the price of the product really puts it into a higher market.”

Over time, word has spread and sheep milk’s attributes are being sought by more and more people.

The Kings did a lot of legwork to spread the word themselves, of course, giving more than 100 talks to various organisations.

But while starting Kingsmeade made Miles into a cheesemaker, his passion is the animals.

Over the years he’s kept impeccable records as he worked to breed the perfect milking sheep for New Zealand’s environment.

That work is paying off and the Dairymeade genetics are now being sold globally.

To get to that stage, the Kings asked renowned Massey University epidemiologist Professor Roger Morris for some help.

Miles turned his records over to Morris, who was surprised by what he saw.

“Miles had the best set of animal records that I’ve ever come across, dating back right to the formation of the flock.

“So I helped him get that together and brought in Professor Nicolas Lopez-Villalobos in as the geneticist and went through the process of getting the breed recognised. I also help on the issues of maintaining its high health status and so forth, which is critical to exports.”

Dairymeade milking ewes are quick to release their milk and are hardy enough to thrive in New Zealand’s environment.

Morris also connected the Kings with Monterra dairy, which now milks 9000 Dairymeade sheep at its facility in Inner Mongolia.

“Monterra wants to act as the marketing company for genetics in China,” Morris says. 

“So they would then onsell the embryos, in particular, to a range of other dairy-sheep producers in China.”

Morris says sheep milk is very popular in China.

“Sheep milk is very good for young children, babies and toddlers. So a range of different products are being produced for different ages of children. 

“We’ve got potential arrangements being set up with a nearby AI centre in Woodville to produce the embryos and export them.

“It seems to me a perfect opportunity for someone in New Zealand to pick up.”

So what does the perfect NZ milking ewe look like?

“It’s still largely the East Friesian, but with 25 years of development we’ve made a more stable animal for New Zealand conditions,” Miles says.

“The temperament has had a big, big influence on the letdown. So the sheep settle down quickly, whereas originally we had to do quite a lot of manipulation to get them to release that milk. 

“They had to have hardiness, there were some very thin-skinned sheep that did not survive very well. They didn’t have that stamina to put up with NZ’s conditions.” 

With the covid-19 downturn behind them and the genetics business maturing, the Kings reckon it is time to move on.

Their children and grandchildren live in Australia and the hope is to join them there soon.

“We’ve got three daughters, all living overseas with families. And when you’re as committed to a business as we have been, we’ve got teenage grandsons we’ve seen five times in their life,” Janet says.

“So at some point, you realise that you have to back off and wind down. But there’s a lot of potential in the business.

“It’s been an amazing experience.”

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