Research to set NZ sheep milk apart

New Zealand’s sheep milk industry is set to benefit from ground-breaking research by AgResearch.

Two hundred people are attending the second Sheep Milk NZ industry conference, being held in Palmerston North this week (14th-15th March). The first conference last year attracted 160 people, with the rise reflecting the increased interest in the industry.

AgResearch scientists presented the initial results from two years of research from the $6 million MBIE-funded programme “Boosting exports of the emerging dairy sheep industry”, ranging from composition of New Zealand sheep milk through to best practice effluent management.

“New Zealand’s dairy sheep systems are unique to us, and we have the natural advantages of our year-round pasture-based farming. We need to establish the particular qualities and advantages our systems produce,” says research leader and AgResearch research scientist Dr Linda Samuelsson.

“If we are to make claims about the benefits of New Zealand sheep milk, we need the data to back it up.”

Differences established so far include research by Marita Broadhurst analysing 500 milk samples collected at different times of year over the last three years. It shows that on average, New Zealand sheep milks have higher levels of protein and twice the fat of cow’s milk, with high levels of calcium, phosphorus and magnesium.

Dr Wayne Young and Dr Linda Samuelsson’s work show sheep and cow milk cause different effects on gastrointestinal physiology in rats. “We also observed that rats fed sheep milk required less solid food than rates given raw cow milk to maintain the same level of growth. This supports the view that sheep milk is an excellent source of nutrition,” says Dr Young.

Other goals for the research include optimising feed and nutrition systems and developing criteria to ensure environmental sustainability of sheep dairying in New Zealand.

Dr David Stevens presented research looking at liveweight gains of ewe lambs between 12 and 20 weeks on puberty and mammary gland development. “The research was to gain information about the systems we run because we can’t look to international literature. We have to do it ourselves,” he says.

Dr Sue McCoard presented research showing that early weaning (from four weeks vs standard weaning of six weeks) can increase milk yield without compromising pre-weaning or post-weaning growth rates.

Establishing guidelines to ensure to limit the industry’s environmental impact was the focus of work presented by Natalie Watkins and Bob Longhurst who looked at the volumes and nutrients generated in sheep dairy effluent. They presented details of the effluent characteristics and provided best practice management guidelines.

MBIE National Manager Biological Industries Max Kennedy says the research is integrated across on and off farm and brings together a breadth of New Zealand expertise including Callaghan Innovation and University of Otago.

“This is the beginning of the New Zealand dairy sheep story and how New Zealand sheep milk is different to the sheep milk in the rest of the world. This is research to enable us to create that early New Zealand brand story,” he says.