Long-time Canterbury sheep farmer and woolgrower Joe Catherwood has diversified into sheep milking.
The Awassi breed, originally imported to supply meat and milk to Middle Eastern markets, is to provide much needed genetic diversity to existing flocks.
The Saudi-owned Hawkes Bay-based enterprise known as Awassi NZ has agreed to make rams available to cross with the East Friesian breed on which the industry currently depends.
Dr Jock Allison had a lead role in the importation of both breeds over 20 years ago, and regards this as a big step forward. "The hybrid of these two breeds is well established in the Middle East and Mediterranean regions where it is known as the Assaf breed. It is a dual purpose animal much hardier than pure East Friesian, and the hybrid vigour is a bonus".
By coincidence, the head of Awassi NZ, George Assaf, shares the same name as the hybrid, but this had nothing to do with the decision.
"We have had a long relationship with Jock Allison and because we could this to be a good benefit to NZ farmers when he asked if we would help out, we wanted to say yes". He is convinced the Awassi will add considerable value in New Zealand through improved milk yield and especially high solids (fat and protein). Importantly, the Awassi is a very hardy sheep. Awassi NZ chose the breed as the best option for the proposed live export trade to the Middle East because this hardiness was a proven advantage on live shipments made previously. They also adapted well when farmed in NZ.
The pure East Friesian ewes being mated to the Awassi rams derive from a stock of 1700 embryos retained by Jock Allison since the late 1990s. These were purchased in 2015 by Jake Chardon and Peter Gatley, better known for their long involvement in breeding of dairy cattle (CRV and LIC) and deer (Deer Improvement).
The pair are now part of a Maori/Chinese joint venture called Maui Milk based near Taupo, and are supplying rams to breed dairy sheep to enable new suppliers to be established. They recognise the importance of new blood.
Gatley says this is the key to productivity improvement. "We have access to everything else we need. We can improve nutrition and bring in specialised milking equipment, but until we are able to import new genetic material, the Awassi is our only source of genetic diversity".
Chardon agrees. "The East Friesian is a great milking sheep but it is bred for the European barn environment, so we need to introduce something else to create a dairy sheep for our pastoral system. Awassi NZ have invested a lot in creating their breeding operation, and we appreciate the trust they have shown in allowing us to access their rams."