NZ set to expand sheep-milk industry

NZ set to expand sheep-milk industry

Hundreds of lambs bred from a secret stash of frozen embryos are set to provide a major expansion for New Zealand's sheep-milking industry.

Overseas demand for our sheep milk already exceeds supply, but that could be about to change, with tens of thousands of specially bred dairy sheep entering the industry.

On the outside, they look like your average New Zealand lambs. But it's what's inside that makes this sheep flock very unique.

"They are the only really critical mass of pure dairy sheep in New Zealand," says Maui Milk general manager Peter Gatley. "So that's really exciting. That's the basis of a whole new industry."

Overseas demand for sheep milk well exceeds what Maui Milk is currently able to produce. It's popular because sheep only produce milk with the A2 protein. A1, found in cows, can upset some stomachs.

So you can imagine the surprise when a local sheep milk company heard that a stash of East Fresian embryos was lying hidden in Hawke's Bay.

"It is considered to be one of the best milking breeds in the world for sheep, and it is only imported in New Zealand on one occasion, in 1995," says geneticist Jake Chardon.

The man behind that import, Dr Jock Allison, went on to freeze 1700 of the breed's embryos.

Once Maui Milk found out, it did an on-the-spot deal to secure them. The entire stock was surgically implanted into recipient ewes, and the new lambs are the result.

The lambs-from-the-embryo programme will eventually be crossed with other breeds. That could create up to 30,000 specially bred milking ewes within two years.

"There's no doubt there's a lot of interest in milking goats and milking sheep," says Mr Gatley. "The reasons are quite clear. New Zealand needs diversification. We need a higher value product, more stable farmgate pay-out."

This year was plagued by low farmgate pay-outs for dairy farmers.

So if this sheep-milk programme is successful, Maui Milk could get a lot more knocks on the door.

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