Waikato Innovation Park, at Hamilton, soon home to another spray dryer, recently hosted Labour politicians and other visitors.
The firm’s producer business manager, Thomas Macdonald, says international demand for New Zealand sheep milk products is strong. And more farmers are inquiring about converting their dairy farms to sheep milk, he says.
“Heading into our fifth dairy season we are noticing a lot more interest in the industry,” says Macdonald. “Last year, I might have received around one inquiry a month from a farmer looking at options, but those inquiries are now coming in thick and fast.”
Macdonald says with Spring Sheep being demand-led they will only bring in more suppliers when the demand is there, which is now.
“We have 4000 sheep being milked. But strong customer demand means we are now looking to grow sheep numbers by bringing in new supplier farmers.”
Most milk demand is from Asia where consumers want alternative milks and nutrition products, Macdonald says. Growth in this market is on Spring Sheep’s agenda.
“Last year, we saw our productivity double thanks to new genetic lines imported from Europe.”
Previously, NZ-bred ewes were producing 120L each per season, but the new, high-performing genetic lines have the potential to increase production to 600L per ewe per season.
“Most farming systems need about 250-450L 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.”
The company has two farms, one near Cambridge and one in Reporoa, near Rotorua. It has just finished its first season successfully running three farm system trials: full grazing outdoor, hybrid indoor outdoor grazing and large scale hybrid models.
Milk from its farms is then processed at Melody Dairies’ spray drier at Waikato Innovation Park in Hamilton.
Macdonald says dairy farmers in Waikato region, being within the two-hour travel zone for processing, are ideal future suppliers.
“Waikato region is rich dairy country, and the pastoral farming practices and core skillset of dairy farming found there is easily transferred to sheep milk.
“The optimal sheep milking system in NZ requires the use of high-performance genetics, combined with a farming system that uses 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 farmgate price remains stable,” he says.
There are several 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,” he says.
“We partnered with AgResearch to do nitrogen leaching trials on our farms, with results showing a 30% reduction in N-leaching compared to an equivalent stocked bovine operation.”
Macdonald says the strong demand for sheep milk products from the market, combined with four seasons of operational experience on Spring Sheep’s farm group, paints a positive picture for the sheep milk industry.
• To find out more on purchasing dairy sheep and supplier contracts, visit Spring Sheep Milk Co at the 2019 National Agricultural Fieldays at Mystery Creek, 12-15 June, at stand J22.