Milking sheep has potential to earn billions of dollars for New Zealand
Isobel Lees did a veterinary degree at Massey University and is now in Grenoble, France, doing a post graduate study in sheep milking.
She says her research investigating if New Zealand can establish an internationally competitive sheep dairy industry might shed light about how farmers might set up the industry.
"This research focused on the lessons learnt from France, a world leader in sheep dairy."
Her studies indicate there is vast potential for New Zealand to establish a sheep dairy industry and for it to be a billion dollar contributor to the economy.
"New Zealand has a competitive advantage and superior performance. It has pasture-based agricultural production systems, leading innovations from the dedicated agricultural research community and market leading standards for sustainability, animal welfare and food safety."
For the industry to get going it would have to improve productivity of sheep dairy breeds through genetic improvements, develop sheep dairy experience and expertise, and secure market relationships, she says.
New Zealanders would also have to get a feel for sheep milking.
"There would have to be industry co-operation and collaboration and government support."
Lees says there is growing global demand for sheep dairy products.
"The major threat to New Zealand's sheep dairy industry is the risk of producing a commodity product or accepting commodity prices for its output."
She says another challenge facing the industry was the risk of becoming over reliant on one market, which has happened before.
"Emphasis on creating strong brands and close relationships throughout the supply chain, should allow the New Zealand dairy sheep industry to gain premium prices and develop stability."
Lees looks at France with a national sheep dairy flock of 1.6 million dairy ewes producing 260 million litres of milk per year and compares it with New Zealand's dairy flock estimated to be about 30,000 ewes and an annual production that is low by world standards.
"This deficiency in critical mass is preventing New Zealand from turning its sheep dairy industry into a thriving industry, predominantly due to the lack of sheer volume to compete effectively in the world marketplace and an insufficient volume needed for effective marketing."
She says almost half a million ewes were artificially inseminated every year in France and 845,000 ewes were registered in official milk recording schemes, making its national flock Europe's largest performance data-controlled flock.
Lees says the three major sheep breeding pools in France achieve world-class milk yields, 289 litres for lacaune, 209 litres for red-face manech and 183 litres for the basco-bearnais.
"The difficulty for the New Zealand dairy sheep industry is that its dairy gene pool is small. Although time has been spent on developing east friesian and awassi breeds, New Zealand is still well behind the genetic progress of the northern hemisphere."
She says imported bloodlines could form the nucleus flock to cross with New Zealand bloodlines and produce a modified breed adapted to the local environment.
Lees believes goat-milking has taken off because it has capital and innovation.
"I think valuable lessons can be learnt from the other successful New Zealand agricultural co-operatives such as the Dairy Goat Cooperative. Their effective use of a customer-focused co-operative business model has helped them overcome the challenges of capital constraints in their early startup phase, as well as the challenges relating to New Zealand's small scale and geographic isolation."
She says consumers are increasingly looking to products that are not only free of harmful effects but that also have added health benefits.
"Product development of sheep milk should focus on nutritional benefits that make it superior to other milk. "
Lees says the sheep dairy industry could develop into a successful niche industry.
"It needs to invest in developing innovative new products that are validated by scientific research."
Key areas of development include:
- Superior sheep milk products for niche sectors like health, infant care and gourmet food.
- Production systems that deliver a consistent supply of high quality safe food that also meet consumers' expectations of animal welfare and environmental stewardship.
- Market innovation and knowledge to communicate with customers.
The industry could also team up with other unique New Zealand products such as manuka honey to develop natural food products that give specific health benefits.
"A manuka honey infused infant formula holds exciting potential. Another area of research could be a New Zealand sheep milk sports drink, officially backed by the All Blacks that offers higher energy and protein, as well as faster digestibility to improve hydration and speed up muscle recovery.
Lees says the sports drink could team up with New Zealand green-lip mussel extract that has anti-inflammatory properties thought to help conditions such as asthma and arthritis.
"For these innovative products to be well received they also have to have the certification and scientific validation to back up these claims."
She says marketing could develop a luxury New Zealand sheep milk brand.
"Food quality labels in France have been so successful they have been widely adopted throughout Europe. The New Zealand dairy sheep industry could establish similar criteria and superior quality labels that command brand recognition and price premiums."