The United States could be to our sheep industry what China is to our dairy cattle – opening a bold new chapter for New Zealand’s most numerous farmed animal says Bay of Plenty’s Federated Farmers meat and fibre vice-chairperson Rick Powdrell.
Rick says New Zealand has a small but thriving dairy sheep industry.
“News that Landcorp is now eyeing dairy sheep is exciting when you put it together with the sheep genome being mapped and a Trans-Pacific Partnership edging ever closer,” says Rick.
“We need to be clear that nothing less than the full elimination of agricultural tariffs in the TPP is acceptable to our members. I say that not only with my meat and fibre hat on but because the United States imported about half of the world’s sheep cheese last year.
“This is not just about the United States because the International Dairy Federation states dairy sheep play an important role in the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern countries.”
Rick says the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organisation puts the global share of sheep milk at 1.4 per cent, “but in terms of who we are actively trading with, or seeking to develop trade relationships with, the potential is huge”.
“In South East Asia, sheep milk accounts for 3.9 per cent of milk production, in China it is 4.2 per cent, while in North Africa and the Middle East it’s 7.5 per cent.
Rick says sheep play a significantly bigger role than dairy goats in these markets “and I suspect that will surprise some people”.
“Sheep milk contains higher milk solids in comparison to cow’s milk, hence its popularity for cheese – but it also commands a premium with consumers as it is more easily digested.
“Earlier this year greater commercial interest in sheep milk saw the International Standards Organisation with the IDF extend ISO to the measurement of protein in sheep milk as well as goats. Clearly, there is growing interest in an animal that thrives in New Zealand.
Rick says Southland’s vertically-integrated Blue River processes sheep milk into cheese, ice cream and milk powder with the latter product overwhelmingly exported.
There’s also Waituhi Kuratau in the North Island, with its Matatoki Farm brand.
“Given environmental factors dairy sheep could play an important role in the industry’s future and Federated Farmers is very keen to explore this in depth with our members.
“With Landcorp now actively considering dairy sheep, this evolution could make sheep a tri-use animal for dairy, meat and fibre.
“This would greatly aid the rejuvenation of our industry and potentially put New Zealand back on the sheep’s back,” says Rick.