With a growing emphasis on doing more with less, sheep dairying is fast becoming a sought-after livestock farming option in New Zealand, predicted to be worth $10 billion in five to 10 years.
Today, there are about 20 sheep milk farms across the country, so there’s plenty of opportunity for those looking to venture into sheep dairy farming.
NZ’s sheep milking story started well over a century ago, but has only grown in popularity in recent years, thanks to new genetics making their way to our shores.
DairyMeade NZ is said to be the first recognised dairy sheep breed here, which through careful breeding with East Friesian rams and meticulous culling over the years, have resulted in a very highly adapted milking ewe for NZ and international conditions.
This helped pave the way for the Southern Cross breed, used by Maui Sheep Milk, which is a hybrid that capitalises on hundreds of years of selection pressure in the East Friesian, Awassi and Lacaune breeds. Spring Sheep also boasts its exclusive Zealandia dairy sheep breeding line. Spring Sheep and Maui Milk are both based in Hamilton and process their milk at the spray drier at Waikato Innovation Park.
While dairy sheep produce less milk than cows, ewes produce on average one to two litres of milk per sheep per day over a 150-200 day lactation. Flock sizes vary from smaller boutique operations to larger commercial units, supplying milk to dairy corporates like Spring Sheep and Maui Milk. Fernglen Farm in Masterton, which sells plain and flavoured prebiotic sheep milk, was the first dairy farm in NZ to receive SPCA Animal Welfare Certification.
Sheep milk is considered to be highly nutritious in vitamins A, B and E, calcium, phosphorus, potassium and magnesium. It contains about one-third more energy than cow or goat milk and contains critical nutritional substances like protein, iron, magnesium, zinc, thiamine, riboflavin, vitamin B6 and B12, vitamin D and essential amino acids. Early research also shows that sheep’s milk can be digested in 45 minutes, while cow’s milk can take about two hours. It also contains only A2 beta casein, which is suitable for those who react to the A1 beta casein in most cow’s milk.
The current payout is about $16-17/kg milksolids.
The milk is used for products like yoghurt, cheeses, milk powders, including infant formulas, and also sold in bottled form for easy consumption. It’s also used in skin and body care and other nutrition-based products.
Studies have shown that sheep dairy farming could also be better for the environment.
A study conducted by AgResearch at two dairy sheep farms in Otago and Taupō between 2016 and 2020, found that in comparison to a typical dairy cow farm in similar environments, the nitrogen losses could be reduced by between 10-50%
However, more research is needed.