Sheep cheese makers raise the bar

TOP CHEESE: Janet and Miles King, artisan cheesemakers, at their shop in Lansdowne Masterton
TOP CHEESE: Janet and Miles King, artisan cheesemakers, at their shop in Lansdowne Masterton

When he started out as a sheep and beef farm manager decades ago, Miles King could never have imagined becoming a cheese maker.

He certainly hadn't planned it that way. In 1996 he and wife Janet bought Kingsmeade, an 11-hectare block just north of Masterton, with the intention of raising a few sheep and milking them.

The free-draining Greytown silt loams are the best soils in the Wairarapa, demanding little in the way of added fertiliser. King invested in 60 east friesian ewes, a breed developed for milking which had been imported from Sweden by scientist Dr Jock Allison in the early 1980s to broaden the genetic base of New Zealand sheep.

Attempts had been made earlier to introduce the breed on Mana Island north of Wellington, but ran into problems when the sheep succumbed to the disease scrapie, and had to be destroyed.

Since then the foot and mouth scare in Europe of the early 2000s has meant no sheep at all can be imported into New Zealand.

Initially King hoped to earn an income from selling just the milk. Fortunately the couple retained their day jobs, because it turned out there was not much of a market for the milk.

But having bought another 60 ewes, King was anxious not to lose on the investment.

"We were going to sell the milk but when that didn't work, we went the next step and built a cheese factory. Someone came in to oversee what I was doing," he says.

Even then it wasn't plain sailing. Much of the first year's cheese production went to waste or to pig food because it failed to meet the strict standards he had set for himself.

"We wanted to make sure the cheese was right. At the beginning we were making three varieties but that has expanded to 12."

Among the cheeses are feta, haloumi, pecorino, parmesan, cheddar and brie. One based on the famous roquefort is a strong blue called Tinui. To reflect the "terroir" of the region, the couple have named most of their cheeses after places: Wairarapa jack, Ngawi brie, Castlepoint feta. King believes the cheeses have a special character based on the soils and the grass of the land.

About 20 per cent of their products are sold through their own delicatessen, fronted by Janet. The rest largely goes to stores such as Moore Wilson's in Wellington, Faro in Auckland, and New World supermarkets in Thorndon and Island Bay.

The size of the sheep flock has now expanded to just under 200 milking ewes. The milking platform is the 11ha home farm; the younger stock are grazed elsewhere.

King focuses on cheese making. Two fulltime staff help out in the cheese factory in the morning, and do milking in the afternoon in the 10-a-side herringbone system.

The sheep have been bred for four main traits: constitution, lactation length, temperament and lifespan.

By constitution, he means the length of the udders, vital for ease of milking. He points out that most sheep udders are short and face forward, whereas the east friesian's udders are long and face down.

Sheep bred for meat or wool have a short lactation season, long enough to raise lambs. King has bred his east friesians to start milking in August and to be still producing in April.

Temperament is another key trait.

"It's like the difference between an angus and a dairy cow. You wouldn't want to bring an Angus into the dairy shed! The east friesians are like dairy cows; they are so used to being milked that they just wander into the shed by themselves," he says.

Finally, he has bred his sheep for long lifespans, an average of five to six years.

Rather than wean his lambs early as other farmers do, he waits for six weeks, ensuring the lambs receive full attention from the mother.

King believes he is in a good position to assist the growth of the sheep dairy industry. "We feel we have done the hard yards. We have purebred east friesians and we have all their heritage information behind our flock."

From an environmental point of view, milking sheep wins over dairy cows. Not only do they load the land with fewer nitrates, they also do not need as much water.

On the other hand, they produce only 2-3 litres of milk a day, compared with goats (4.5 litres) and cows (11 litres).