27 Nov 2020

A swing to sheep milk

From Country Life, 9:20 pm on 27 November 2020
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Photo: Susan Murray/RNZ

Switching from milking goats and cows to milking sheep has been likened to swimming three lengths underwater by Te Aroha dairy goat and cow farmer Paul Schuler.

He is one of four Waikato based farmers that this season have taken on milking sheep for Maui Milk.

Come June, as his new sheep were about to arrive on the former cow farm, he was still completing  a milking shed and fixing fences.

Covid slowed developement down, but Schuler says the ram didn't know that. His lambs were going to arrive on time.

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Photo: Susan Murray/RNZ

"It felt like for a while when you're swimming under water you can do one length underwater and that's alright. You have another go .. do another length, that's alright. Do a third length and it's like, shit I need a breath, but I can't. And it's been like that. But in saying that I'd still have a go at the three lengths," Schuler said.

For Schuler it has been pleasing and rewarding, and while so far he has only been paying money out, he is sure financially things will stack up.

He says the sheep, a Coopworth Lacaune cross called the Southern Cross, are a wonderful breed to work with.  

They learn really fast where there is food, he said.
The general manager of Maui Milk, Peter Gatley, said they see potential for small (80 hectare) Waikato dairy cow farms that are struggling to survive, to convert to sheep.

"A small Waikato dairy farm can double its income per hectare (changing) from cows to sheep,  even while dairy is paying 7 dollars a kilo," he said.

He admits there are higher labour costs for milking and during lambing, but the sums still add up.

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Photo: Susan Murray/RNZ

A recent fact sheet displayed by Maui Milk at an information day actually showed profit from a cow farm at $1800 a hectare compared with $8000 for sheep.

And a recent Provincial Growth Fund backed report said New Zealand’s export of sheep milk products was valued at $20 million, and could increase to an export value of $250 million by 2024.

Maui Milk supplies all its sheep milk power to French global food company Danone which gives the company a secure income.

Its New Zealand based representative Leon Fung says Danone is putting a lot of effort into the China market and sheep milk infant formula sold under the Karicare brand, is a premium priced, highly nutritious product.

Another Waikato farmer Paul White described his family's move to include sheep in their farming mix this spring as "no pressure".

But the laugh that followed made you realise it was anything but.

Two of his three sons returned to the land after corporate city jobs and they wanted something challenging.

White said after poor dairy payout years and poor press (dirty dairying) they were looking to diversify their farm income.

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Photo: Susan Murray/RNZ

Like Schuler, they were still fencing paddocks as the sheep walked in through the gate.

"We were fencing one hour ahead of the sheep. No word of a lie.

"It was intense, exciting, scary. A hell of a ride for all of us. Being a pioneer with its challenges and rewards really appealed to us as a family. And now we're out the other side. The future looks great."

For the White farm that is earning 30 to 50 percent more per hectare with sheep compared with their dairy cows.

He said environmentally things stack up as well.

"You go through a wet spell - there is no pugging whatsoever, little effluent, they graze very lightly,  don't go down hard. There are no urine patches, the pasture looks even, with cattle you get urine patches everywhere. It's looking really good."

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Photo: Susan Murray/RNZ

Barratt Watson is farm manager for Browne Pastoral near Cambridge.   He has loved returning to his sheep farming roots.

After many years working with cows he said it was nice giving his body a rest, and he likes sheep.  

"Calving is heavy work. With a sheep you tip her over and pull the lamb out," he grinned.   He milks in shorts and T- shirt, "they're much cleaner animals too."

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Photo: Susan Murray/RNZ

All farmers agree the milking sheep happily head to the shed, some even running a kilometre to get to the lollies, which is grain fed in the milking parlour.

The Southern Cross sheep are inquisitive, as Watson said, 'they have attitude."
Maui Milk hopes to expand its current farm base from six to 12 or more next season.  The supply of suitable sheep is all that is holding the conversion rate up, farms are expected to run flocks of 1000 to 1400 sheep.

The other main player in the boutique sheep milk industry centred on Waikato is Spring Sheep and it has seven farms on board, with plans to expand as well.