On the western edge of Lake Taupo a genetics programme is underway to breed the most efficient milking sheep in New Zealand. Maui Milk Ltd is milking 2000 ewes with new breeds of lambs on the ground, ready to be mated in April. Sheryl Brown reports.

Driving into Waikino Station, new breeds of lamb can be seen grazing the pastures of New Zealand for the very first time.

On a hot December afternoon, they’re typical lambs, nibbling away on the newly established plantain crop, but these lambs are special.

Some are half Lacaune, the French originated milking sheep, and some are half Awassi – the Middle Eastern sheep that is bred for meat and milk, crossed over Coopworth/East Friesian sheep.

These lambs are the start of a new genetics programme to combine all four breeds to produce a new sheep that will be known as Southern Cross.

Importing new sheep genetics is the biggest game-changer for the NZ sheep milking industry, Maui Milk general manager Peter Gatley says.

“Unless we were able to import new genes then the handbrake was going to be on progress forever. We desperately needed new genes.

“We now have new blood from all three breeds that we’re interested in using to create this hybrid Southern Cross breed. It’s a huge milestone in the history of this industry.”

Peter, together with geneticist Jake Chardon, bought the remaining pure East Friesian genetics in NZ a few years ago after attending the NZ Sheep Milk conference.

The pair saw an emerging opportunity of a sheep milking industry that had potential if they harnessed the right genetics.

They subsequently partnered with Maui Milk to use the pure East Friesian embryos to breed rams and mate them over 4000 Coopworth ewes to give them a Coopworth/East Friesian base sheep.

Maui Milk then imported Lacaune straws of semen from France and leased Awassi rams from Hawke’s Bay-based Saudi Arabian-owned Awassi NZ last year.

To get dairy sheep to perform in the NZ environment, the greater the genetic diversity the better.

The hybrid vigour will also be important when combining these four different breeds, Gatley – who was previously general manager genetics for LIC – says.

“It’s like the Kiwicross in dairy, we don’t know which breed will ultimately contribute the most genetic material.

Performance data will determine that. We will just put them all in a big washing machine and select vigorously on performance, exactly like we did in dairy cattle.”

Lacaune sheep are known for their good udder conformation and high milk yield, while Awassi are a hardy sheep which should have better heat tolerance, with East Freisian offering milk volume and Coopworth a solid foundation of genetics adapted to the NZ environment.

“We want a sheep that will survive, that’s relatively easy care, it enables us to cull on performance.”

Mating in April this year will see the first time all four breeds will be in one animal. It was a risky manoeuvre to access the rights to new genetics and get approval to import them into NZ.

The first hurdle was convincing both the French and Saudis to release genetics, which they managed to do by the assurance to give quality performance data back to them, Gatley says.

“They have confidence they will get useful information back on how their sheep perform in this environment.”

While they were awaiting confirmation Gatley and Chardon purchased Waikino Station on behalf of the investors and started the dairy conversion process.

“It was high risk to commit to buying the farm and starting the conversion before we had secured the genetics.

There was a 50/50 chance the French and Saudis wouldn’t sell us the genetics and a 50/50 chance we wouldn’t be able to import them.”

It was a relief when the semen was finally in the country, Gatley says.

“We tracked the entire flight by flight radar until the plane touched down in Auckland.”

Collecting milk data 

A big part of the genetics breeding programme being a success will come back to harnessing individual sheep performance data.

Maui Milk worked with GEA to provide a solution tailored to their needs, GEA and Maui travelled to Europe to assess equipment, from that visit they decided on an internal 64-bale rotary platform, and installed in-shed feeding, a covered yard, Reporoa backing gates, and an adjustable height platform in the pit to ensure comfort and ergonomic efficiency for milkers.

GEA installed the plant and equipment including its DairyPlan S21 software which records milk yield, composition, reproduction, feeding and health for every animal on the farm.

GEA also configured into their iCORE milking point management system a milk composition meter to provide protein, fat and lactose data in the sheep milk. The software and equipment combination is the first installation of its kind worldwide for GEA and was developed to ensure more accurate choices could be made for Maui Milk’s genetic programme.

Two barns, capable of housing 1000 ewes each have been built with GEA feed conveyor belts, which were sourced from Europe.

Onfarm system 

The Coopworth/East Friesian ewes were synchronised last year and 2500 artificial inseminations performed, which were all laparoscopic surgeries.

That meant a compacted lambing, with 1300 ewes lambed in a three-week period.

Lambs are taken off their mothers between 24 and 48 hours after they’ve had colostrum and hand-reared.

Only 200 ram lambs were kept, with the rest given to lamb-rearers along with AnLamb milk powder.

Removing the ram lambs meant they could focus on the 1400 replacement lambs, Gatley says.

None of the sheep had been milked beforehand and all had to be trained in the milking parlour. With the last of the infrastructure including the barns still being finished, it was a chaotic time, farm manager Katy Day says.

“Training was a momentous task, but sheep don’t get enough credit. They’re smart animals especially when you put food in front of them.”

Her team of staff includes eight French workers and one from the United Kingdom, who all have skills in sheep milk farming. Their expertise when it came to handling the sheep has been pivotal, she says.

“I’m used to drystock farming, flipping the animals upside down and chasing them – watching the staff with the animals, they would pick up a lamb and walk backwards and the mother would follow them.”

The aim is to get the lambs up to 50kg before they are mated as hoggets in April which will be a challenge, Gatley says.

“The lambs were born out of hoggets, and were born late, so they are a little behind the eight ball.”

The barns could help to continue weight gain after mating by bringing them inside and feeding them extra supplement leading up to lambing. The lambs will be on adlib lucerne and plantain and fed pellets. Lucerne is central to the farm system as it’s a high-quality feed that lasts throughout the summer and they will also make lucerne baleage to feed in the barns.

The milking ewes are also fed a pellet in the farm dairy, the recipe created by nutritionist Paul Sharp.

It may still be early days for farmers to start pouring concrete and converting to milking sheep, but the potential is now there to breed an efficient milking sheep which could make it a productive and profitable option in the future, Gatley says.