The first of a completely new breed of milking ewes will be put to the test when they step onto the rotary milking platform at Waikino Station near Lake Taupo this spring.
The ewes are the result of an innovative breeding programme to produce a superior milking ewe, ideally suited to New Zealand’s climate and farming conditions, says Maui Milk general manager Peter Gatley.
“I believe these ewes carry the first dairy genes to be imported in a quarter of a century,” says Peter.
The new breed will be called Southern Cross and is the work of Peter and internationally-renowned geneticist Jake Chardon.
The ewes are the result of a breeding programme using more than 2000 straws of French Lacaune semen and 450 UK East Friesian embryos, with backup by Awassi/East Friesian cross rams.
“Breeders have crossed East Friesian and Awassi breeds before but to my knowledge no one has added Lacaune genetics as well.”
The benefits of the new breed, plus the high-tech milking and sheep handling facilities at Waikino Station were showcased during two days in late January. The first event on January 30 marked the official opening of Maui Milk Limited’s dairy complex, which milks 2000 ewes, by TaupoDistrict Council MayorDavid Trewavas before an audience of around 100, including representatives of local iwi, Chinese investors, Chinese government officials, and Ministry for Primary Industries officials.
The following day 300 farmers, bankers, accountants and consultants visited the station.
“This was a much more informal event, designed to give those interested an opportunity to see the milking system in operation and ask in-depth questions about Maui Milk and Southern Cross Dairy Sheep.”
Peter says he is pleased with the numbers attending and the level of interest. “However, we are not encouraging anyone to pour concrete and convert to milking ewes just yet. Instead we are inviting people to keep in touch and follow our progress. In effect we are taking all the risks.”
To be successful, a New Zealand sheep milk industry must develop to meet the market. “We are not interested in all the hype and talk that this might be the next billion-dollar industry. We very much admire what the goat dairy co-operative has achieved by linking supply to demand. We are aiming for a sustainable sheep milk industry which stays out of the commodity market.”
The development of Waikino Station, home of the new milking complex, has been funded by the Maui Food Group Ltd, a Shanghai-based marketing company.
That company formed Maui Milk with joint venture partner Waituhi Kuratau Trust, which had pioneered sheep milking in the region in 2007.
Maui Milk has invested heavily in the concept of milking sheep in New Zealand, including in the purpose-built dairy with its 64-bale internal rotary imported from France.
The plant includes in-line electronic milk meters, automatic cup removers, backing gates, and an adjustable height platform in the pit to ensure comfort and ergonomic efficiency for milkers. Milk from the farm is collected by a tanker for transport for processing at the Waikato Innovation Park.
The extensive complex adjoining the dairy and its yards also includes a lamb-rearing facility and two large barns complete with feed conveyors, capable of housing 1000 ewes each.
However, the ewes are primarily grazed outdoors on the 770-hectare property, grazing on new pasture of plantain and Lucerne.