What lies ahead for sheep milking?

AbacusBio consultant Joanne Kerslake attended the Ewe Milk Products and Sheep Dairying Conference in February. Here she shares her thoughts and insights from the Palmerston North event.

The two-day conference had a great turnout with over 100 attendees, who are passionate about sheep milk products and excited to hear if sheep milking will be the new ‘cash cow’ of the future.

A wide range of topics were covered, ranging from sheep dairy farm operations and industry structure, to ewe milk products for international consumers and markets.

Ewe milk is shown to contain more fat and protein per volume than other milk. It also contains greater levels of certain vitamins and minerals that are essential for health benefits.

There is anecdotal evidence that lactose-intolerant consumers are able to digest sheep milk more easily, even though sheep milk has a similar lactose content as cow milk.

Sheep milking is also believed to have a smaller environmental footprint.

“The presenters did a great job illustrating that sheep milk has some amazing properties and that we have a great story to tell,” Joanne says.

Lucy Cruickshank, who is a 2014 Nuffield Scholar, recently released a business plan for the New Zealand sheep dairy industry (visit reports/).

In addition to understanding the products, Lucy also talked about the importance of understanding our potential consumers and what they are looking for.

Genetics was perceived to be the greatest challenge in moving the industry forward.

The most common milking breeds overseas include Lacaune (France), Awassi (Middle East), and Assaf (a cross between Awassi and Friesian in Israel).

The closest milking breed in New Zealand to these international breeds is the East Friesian.

If demand is created, and a scale-up of the industry is required, breeding programmes and technologies will need to be developed in order to ensure we develop a strong dairy breed that produces well under New Zealand’s environmental conditions.

Ewe nutrition and lamb rearing also make up the key themes of discussion.

An exciting programme by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment is currently underway – looking at the nutritional needs of the modern ewe, best practices of rearing lambs, and how we could do these cost-effectively at a large scale, via New Zealand’s grassbased systems.

“Overall it was great to see the enthusiasm displayed in the sheep milking industry; it is truly at an interesting stage.”

“The conference did a great job of setting the scene and identifying the challenge on how New Zealand can produce, brand, and market multiple niche sheep milk products to the world.”