Sheep milk holds out the promise of being a potential money maker for New Zealand farmers, with the bonus of a lower ecological impact.
An estimated 50 per cent of Asians are intolerant of cow's milk. There is a high demand for infant formula, bulk milk powder, and cheese, and research is being carried out into other sheep milk products such as icecream, pharmaceuticals, and cosmetics.
Sheep milk is higher in total solids than cow or goat milk, and contains up to twice as many minerals such as calcium, phosphorus, iron, and zinc. It also provides more of the percentage of A, E, C, and B complex vitamins than cow's milk.
The nation's largest farmer, Landcorp, is exploring the idea of converting some of its flocks to dairy sheep. Federated Farmers is enthusiastic about the idea and the Government has given AgResearch $6.6 million to investigate how to grow the industry.
But a revolution will not happen overnight. For a start, it is not a simple matter of hill farmers rounding up their sheep and herding them into milking sheds. Milking sheep are special breeds and most New Zealand sheep have been bred for their meat and wool.
Fear of disease means sheep, sheep semen and eggs cannot be imported so the flocks have to be built up from within New Zealand.
The largest New Zealand sheep milking operation, with a flock of 25,000 and 70 staff, is Blue River Dairy in Southland. The sheep are an east friesian-poll dorset-cross and it has taken 10 years for numbers to build up. The other large producer is Waituhi Kuratau Trust near Lake Taupo. Landcorp, with a nationwide flock of about 850,000 ewes, leases about 1500 to Blue River.
Although Blue River has 25,000 sheep, it does not milk all of them at once. The number milked daily is more like 9000, explains marketing manager Justine Horgan, because included in the flock are young ones coming on, and breeding stock.
In a briefing last year to Parliament's primary production select committee, the issue of breeding up numbers was addressed. It can take years for breeding programmes to make improvements, and artificial insemination, which is difficult with sheep, is crucial to such programmes. It said there was a need for adequate funding in genetic research and breeding.
Horgan says sheep dairy farms also need to be close to processors if they are big enough to do what Blue River has done and dry the milk for export.
"For example, if you wanted to set up in Canterbury you couldn't supply us because there's no way to get the milk to us. It's going to have to be quite strategic in the way that it grows. You'd have to start near an existing producer or processor."
Blue River converts about 80 per cent of its milk into powder for export to China, Australia, Indonesia, Korea, Malaysia and Singapore. The company is investigating the United States as a market. The rest is made into cheese, with two types of feta, a cheddar, haloumi and a style modelled after pecorino.
Australia is shaping up as a cheese export market; at present the cheeses are largely sold in specialty stores in New Zealand.
Owned by Southland businessman Keith Neylon and the Tachril family of Indonesia, which has a 50 per cent stake in the business, Blue River operates three farms. They are "typical, lush Southland farms," says Horgan.
That raises a further obstacle for the fledgling industry: finding suitable high-quality land that will produce top-quality milk. Most sheep and beef farms are on extensive, less fertile country, unsuited to sheep dairying. The parliamentary committee put it this way: "Unless the industry can continue to demonstrate that it can compete with cows and thus generate interest amongst farmers, it could be pushed back to marginal land areas and again the full potential of the industry would not be realised."
Meanwhile, Neylon has an ambitious 10-year plan to build sheep dairy numbers up to two million. He says farmers can augment their incomes by selling young lambs as milk lambs, for which there is a healthy export market.
Blue River sells three-week-old lambs, mainly to overseas markets. Unlike other sheep producers, who raise their lambs to heavier weights, Blue River sheds its surplus lambs because it does not have space for both milking sheep and growing lambs.
Kingsmeade's Miles King is upbeat about industry prospects: "It's got so much potential but it will take the big guys to drive it."
A collaboration has begun between AgResearch, University of Otago, Callaghan Innovation, Ferrier Research Institute at Victoria University of Wellington and three industry partners: Blue River Dairy, Kingsmeade Cheese and Waituhi Kuratau Trust. The research programme aims to grow exports.
One way is to increase the total volume of milk, either by increasing the number of sheep, or production of individual sheep. Another part of the programme is investigating the nutritional composition of sheep milk, which is yet unknown for grass-fed dairy sheep, and comparing it to cow and goat milk.
Finally, the programme will research the environmental footprint of sheep dairying and compare it to cow dairying. Justine Horgan is as positive as King: "We've got a really good product, it's something that the local and international market wants, and for us there's no other option than to grow."