Sheep milk producers are putting the call out for more farmer suppliers, as international demand for New Zealand sheep milk continues to grow.
One of the main players in the industry is Spring Sheep Milk Co, which operates two farms near Cambridge and one in Reporoa, near Rotorua.
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Spring Sheep has just finished its first season successfully running three farm system trials – full grazing outdoors, hybrid indoor-outdoor grazing and large scale hybrid models.
Milk from Spring Sheep farms is processed at Melody Dairies’ spray drier at Waikato Innovation Park in Hamilton.
Spring Sheep business manager Thomas Macdonald, said the company had experienced significant growth during the 2018/2019 financial year and international demand for New Zealand sheep milk products is strong.
He said the time was right for farmers to get onboard.
"We currently have 4000 sheep being milked, however strong customer demand means we are now looking to grow sheep numbers by bringing on new supplier farmers," he said.
With demand predominantly coming from Asia, driven by consumers' increasing preference for alternative milks and nutritional focused products, Macdonald said growth in the Asian market was very much on Spring Sheep’s agenda.
"Last year we saw our productivity double thanks to new genetic lines imported from Europe. Previously New Zealand-bred ewes were producing 120 litres each per season, but the new, high-performing genetic lines have the potential to increase production to over 600 litres per ewe per season."
He said farming sheep for milk was an attractive proposition.
"Most farming systems need about 250-450 litres per ewe per season to achieve a good return, so the improved productivity we're seeing presents a good opportunity for farmers considering a conversion to sheep dairy farming."
Macdonald said dairy farmers in the Waikato region, being within the two-hour travel zone for processing, are ideal future suppliers.
"The Waikato region is rich dairy country, and the pastoral farming practices and core skill set of dairy farming found here is easily transferred to sheep milk.".
"The optimal sheep milking system in New Zealand requires the use of high-performance genetics, combined with a farming system that utilises our pastoral advantage. We now have those genetics available, and we’re looking to work with passionate, skilled dairy farmers with high-quality land."
Macdonald says the growth in the industry is encouraging for farmers who are looking at sheep milk as a viable, high-return farming option.
"As a value-added product, sheep milk isn’t at the mercy of fluctuating market prices so the farm gate price remains stable," he said.
There were also positive environmental impacts for farms converting from cow dairy to sheep milk.
"Converting to sheep milk doesn’t require any land use intensification, and there’s a positive impact on water use and nitrogen leaching."