Sheep milk: The billion-dollar future of New Zealand?

Will sheep milk one day replace cow milk as Kiwis’ drink of choice? One Nelson family is banking on it, saying it’s healthier and better for the environment.

Story spent the day in Nelson at Thorvald Company - a newbie on the sheep dairy scene. The Nelson business's claim to fame is they only milk happy sheep.

They say it's better for the environment as there is less effluent and healthier because it has higher protein levels than cow milk. Studies have also suggested a majority of those who are intolerant to cow's milk can consume sheep's milk.  

"I think it's got a massive future, there's a lot of people who are looking at what they eat now," says Sheep Dairy owner Dave Barrett.

Craig Pritchard of Sheep Dairy NZ, a group of farmers, scientists and consultants involved in developing the sheep dairy industry, says thanks to our mostly Anglo Saxon background and roots in Europe, milk usually comes from cows. When you introduce a cup of sheep's milk, most people will have to think about it, he says.

In the international sheep milk industry, there are three main customer perceptions: It's healthy, fashionable and in some quarters - traditional.

Kiwi sheep milk researchers say if we play our cards right, the industry could grow to become worth a billion dollars in just 10 years’ time.

But how would we make our industry internationally competitive? Herein lies the challenge.

Researcher Lucy Griffiths says a more intensive model where animals are fed a lot more and selective breeding would be required and sheep would need to be kept indoors which is a common practice overseas.

"In gross terms it would mean 900 farmers with a thousand ewe flocks producing around 600 litres per ewe per year," says Ms Griffiths.

At the moment, it's 550 litres per year on average at Mr Barrett's farm but he believes there is a way around that.

"If your ewe isn't happy, it's not going to give you the volumes of milk you're looking for."

Watch the video for the full Story report.