Frozen embryos boost for milking sheep

Rising interest in dairy sheep is about to be matched by the availability of milking ewes as a result of an initiative based on pure East Friesian embryos that have been frozen in time since the late 1990s.

A new genetic improvement programme has been established using the unique gene pool that had been retained by Dr Jock Allison, the original importer of the breed.

Interest in milking sheep is increasing in New Zealand and sheep numbers are growing.

Impetus for the initiative has come from the creation of Maui Milk, a joint venture partnership between New Zealand farming and Chinese marketing interests, says Peter Gatley, general manager of both Maui Milk and Southern Cross.

“Demand for the milk is strong but until now, industry growth prospects have been limited by the scarcity of specialised milking ewes.The lid has now been lifted by the breeding of pure East Friesian rams of known dairy pedigree from Europe.”

Mated over maternal breeds such as Poll Dorset, Coopworth or Highlander, the result is known as an ‘F1’, or first cross, a hybrid with milking ability, constitution and hybrid vigour. Similar ewes have formed the basis of the flock of 3000 milked by the Waituhi Kuratau Trust, the Maui Milk joint venture partner farming west of Lake Taupo.

Milk is delivered and processed at Waikato Innovation Park in Hamilton, the powder plant that has provided a leg up to several producers including the Dairy Goat Co-operative. 

“Interest in ‘small ruminant’ (sheep and goat) dairying has boomed in recent years as farmers look for diversification, higher value product, stable payout and a livestock farming option that can exist under environmental regulations such as those in the Taupo and Rotorua regions.

“The closed shareholding at the DGC has encouraged entrepreneurs to start up similar ventures with goats but Maui Milk, as a buyer of sheep milk, now offers Kiwi farmers a chance to capitalise on their knowledge of sheep farming and their preference for a pastoral system where stock spend most or all of their time outdoors grazing.”

The marketing arm of Maui Milk is a Shanghai based company that launched the Blue River sheep milk product from Southland, and established distribution channels over several years. “A change of ownership at Blue River forced them to seek an alternative source of supply, and the focus is now very much on the North Island. They have also formed a separate partnership with two locals who were attracted to the industry with a focus on genetics.”

Peter Gatley and Jake Chardon attended a dairy sheep conference at Massey in February this year and through a conversation with Dr Jock Allison, were surprised to discover that 1700 East Friesian embryos still existed in their pure form, untouched in liquid nitrogen for more than 15 years. A deal was done on the spot, and within weeks, the entire stock was surgically implanted in recipient ewes at Awapai in Hawkes Bay, owned by Simon Beamish, one of the Rissington Breedline founding partners.

The females resulting from the embryo programme will be milked in 2016, providing valuable data on the comparative performance of the pure strain under local conditions, and the top performers will be selected as embryo donors.

Rams from various bloodlines will be retained for progeny testing, and the remainder will generate up to 10,000 crossbred milking ewes in their first year.

Peter Gatley previously ran the LIC dairy cattle genetics business and established Deer Improvement for the farmer co-operative. Jake Chardon, ex-global Chief Executive of CRV, has a lifetime of experience in international dairy cattle genetics, and has overseen the development of genetic programmes for both Deer Improvement and the DGC.

Jock Allison is delighted to see the potential of the gene pool being realised. “I didn’t want to see those embryos go out 50 or 100 at a time because this would dissipate the value.  There’s a critical mass of genetic material there that these guys can work with. I’ve no doubt they’ll create something special.”

This initiative will not only drive genetic gain, but also carry out farm system development to provide a template for Kiwi farmers to replicate. It is known as Southern Cross Dairy Sheep Technology. 

Peter Gatley says there is an opportunity right now for farmers who see the potential to start milking sheep in 2017.

“You don’t have to sign up now, but if you’re serious rather than just curious, the smartest thing you can do is create an option for yourself by putting some rams out.”

Potential suppliers are invited to contact Maui Milk.


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