Dairy sheep – a new frontier?

A strong turnout at the recent sheep dairying conference in Palmerston North has boosted interest in this emerging industry.

The FoodHQ Ewe Milk Products and Sheep Dairying conference attracted 160 delegates and included farmers, consultants, agricultural industry representatives, scientists and staff from the Ministry for Primary Industries and Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment. AgResearch Food Nutrition & Health Scientist Dr Linda Samuelsson was on the organising committee and says the turnout exceeded their expectations.

Dr Samuelsson’s involvement in the conference comes from her responsibility leading the 6-year MBIE programme called ‘Boosting exports of the emerging NZ dairy sheep industry’. This inter-disciplinary programme involves AgResearch scientists from all over the country.

The research is aimed at growing exports of the established New Zealand dairy sheep industry by creating greater value from milk through knowledge of its composition and the functionality of its components, improving net volume and value of harvested ewe’s milk, and establishing criteria to ensure the environmental sustainability of sheep dairying in New Zealand. This value-chain approach to sustainable sheep dairying will result in a more attractive industry to new entrants and suppliers, further boosting its growth.

Landcorp is trialling a move into sheep milk with the purchase of 2,500 East Friesian sheep, which are the best sheep breeds in terms of milk yield per ewe currently available in New Zealand, for one of its central North Island farms. They expect to begin milking in the spring of 2015.

There is currently just a handful of commercial producers in New Zealand but Dr Samuelsson says the conference highlighted enthusiasm and belief in the industry.

“More importantly there was a strong feeling of ‘let’s get this right from the start and make it succeed this time’ because there have been a few failed attempts in the past.”

“It was also a very useful exercise for AgResearch as well because we were able to showcase AgResearch and our science collaborators’ capability in sheep dairying.”

One area of research identified as needing improvement is boosting nutritional feeding of dairy sheep to lift production and another is accelerating the genetics, says AgResearch’s Dairy Pasture-to-Plate Portfolio Leader Kevin Argyle who also attended the conference.

“There are a number of areas of research that aren’t currently in the MBIE programme. Improving the sheep genetics is one such area and that is something that we’re exploring at the moment.”

Dairy sheep and sheep milk cheeses subsequently featured in a display at the 2015 Central Districts Field Days and will be also be promoted at the National Agricultural Fieldays at Mystery Creek in June 2015.