Friday, 24 August 2018 10:55

Spring in step of sheep milking

Written by  Pam Tipa
Spring Sheep Dairy’s Thomas MacDonald. Spring Sheep Dairy’s Thomas MacDonald.

It is an exciting time to be talking sheep milking, says Thomas MacDonald, business manager for Spring Sheep Dairy, in Taupo.

The company has commissioned one of two new milking parlours in Waikato, its sales staff are signing new agreements in two countries and a second generation of specifically bred New Zealand dairy sheep have been born, he says. 

All this happened in the first week of August when MacDonald spoke at the NZ Institute of Primary Industry Management.

MacDonald says when you try something new there’s a lot of criticism. Sheep milking is now “almost acceptable” and he is now getting emails every week from companies who told them at the start it wouldn’t work. 

They are starting to see significant pull and demand from customers demanding better digestion, better tasting milks and more toddler products.

“At the farmer end, we are starting to see new genetics born – never before seen in New Zealand – which have the capacity and potential to take us to the next level,” he explains.

After a breeding programme, the company will have sheep available this year to go wider than Spring Sheep Dairy, MacDonald says. 

“The beauty of sheep is you get 1.8 of them a year and the generation interval is only 12 months so we are now milking the European sheep which came into the country in 2016.” 

To go beyond Waikato, where manufacturing is based at Food Waikato facilities, they would need to see investment in small to medium scale manufacturing facilities that were export registered. 

“There is plenty of money it would seem sloshing around in the regional development fund and others, so I hope we would start seeing people put forward cases for export registered manufacturing sites which will enable the growth of sheep milking in new regions.”

On June 1, Spring Sheep converted a 200-cow, 50ha Waikato dairy farm to sheep dairy milking, bringing in 550 sheep. 

“With very limited capital exposure we will be taking what I call a stranded asset, an old dairy parlour that probably wasn’t making much money -- it had probably lost its environmental capacity to farm on that bit of land -- and we have given it a second life,” MacDonald says.

And in a greenfield farm development near Cambridge where the company has taken an arable farm, it had put its first row of sheep through milking the morning of the conference.

They now have dairy parlours in three locations, having started in Taupo. 

Spring Sheep started about three years ago with Landcorp as a 50% shareholder with SLC Group – which represents a range of private equity investors – and the Ministry for Primary Industries. 

MacDonald says early on they realised sheep milking was critical to NZ agriculture in representing a significant opportunity in land-use change. 

They put forward a successful case for a Primary Growth Partnership named Sheep Horizon Three which, beyond Spring Sheep, aimed to develop a sustainable sheep milking industry in NZ. The aim is to build an industry of $200-$700 million of gross sales in the next few years.

MacDonald says Spring Sheep aimed to learn from these experiences to build a successful sheep milking industry, with a consumer-driven model.  He says sales people spend a lot of time overseas talking to customers and ‘socialising’ the concept of sheep milking.

They won’t necessarily stick with just traditional or liquid formats. An example is a line of ‘chews’ targeting calcium absorption for Malaysia, Taiwan and Viet Nam where they “are going great guns”. 

After an initial study with rats fed sheep milk showing higher bone density, protein absorption and digestion qualities, Spring Sheep – with AgResearch and the Liggins Institute – now have human clinical studies underway.


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