Dairy Sheep for Maui Milk at Waikino Station

April 2018

A new sheep dairy operation at Waikino Station is producing milk for Maui Milk and new genetics for the dairy sheep industry in New Zealand

Maui Milk is a joint venture between a Chinese milk powder marketer, Shanghai-based Maui Food Group (60%) led by Natalie Dang, and Maori dairy sheep pioneers, Waituhi Kuratau Trust (with 40%) based near Turangi.

Sheep milking is underway this season (2017/2018) in two locations near Lake Taupo. Different sheep management facilities and programmes are being trialed. One of the farms, Waikino Station, has recently installed a new milking rotary from France, and built two barns to house up to 2,000 ewes.

Waikino Station is a supplier to Maui Milk, along with the Waituhi Kuratau Trust, which began milking sheep in 2007. Waikino Station started milking in the 2017/2018 season.

Farming at Waikino Station (770ha) includes a new dairy sheep conversion (milking platform 150ha). A new rotary dairy and two sheep housing units capable of containing 2000 ewes have been built. The new conversion will enable sheep to graze outside on ryegrass/clover, lucerne and plantain. Ewes will also be housed indoors for periods during the year in two barns, fed by supplements on conveyor belts.

Sheep are also fed pellets in the milking parlour. The intention is to use the housing to minimise climatic stress on the ewes and to ensure lamb survival, with 75% of ewe intake throughout the year coming from pasture.

The Waikino indoor/outdoor management system is being compared with the WKT all-outdoor method, to provide guidelines to the growing New Zealand dairy sheep industry. Just as in the cow dairy industry, it is expected that there will be a role for both.

A purpose-built lamb rearing facility contains 250 ram lambs (natural-sired, AI and ET lambs) with the replacement ewe lambs contracted out to lamb rearers. They are hand-reared for 30 to 40 days to 16-18kg LW and then weaned onto pasture, lucerne and plantain and ad-lib sheep pellets. The goal is to have as many as possible reach 50kg for mating in April as ram hoggets.

Milking at Waikino occupies 2 hours a day with 1,000 sheep per hour being milked through a new GEA internal 64-bale rotary platform imported from France. It has feeding stations and milk metering for yield, composition, reproduction, feeding and health information. All information is recorded on DairyPlan S21 flock management software.

The iCORE milking point management system measures protein, fat and lactose data, being the first of its kind installation for GEA worldwide. The installation has in-line electronic milk meters, automatic cup removers, Reporoa backing gates, and an adjustable height platform in the pit, to ensure comfort and ergonomic efficiency for milkers.

Ewes have to step on to the platform from the outside and then turn 180 to access the pellet feeder and to present the udder to the operator. The rotary machinery is relatively light by cow-dairy standards but it has worked very well in the season so far.

Sheep milk from both properties is collected and trucked to Waikato. Being only 15 minutes from the original WKT farm nearer Kuratau is a bonus, and a tanker collects milk twice a week for processing into WMP (whole milk powder) at Waikato Innovation Park, and packaged for sale to China.

At the peak of the season during lambing and with ewes being introduced to milking, Waikino employed nine young farmers on work visas from France and the UK who were familiar with sheep milking. Farm manager Katy Day has two staff members during the winter time.

Waikino grows 135ha of lucerne, which is strip-grazed by sheep and for lucerne silage which is stored and fed out in the ewe houses. 35ha of plantain are also grown, on and off the milking platform, and Maui intends to increase this crop area. The location is ideal for growing lucerne, which is grazed fresh and fed as silage in the barns.

Recently 25ha of plantain was sown using heli-cropping. It goes on country with less easy contour. Lucerne is a mainstay in the farm system because it flourishes right through summer and lactation, and provides the opportunity to cut and conserve.

The cold winters and pumice soils provide a healthy environment for sheep, and there is usually little challenge from facial eczema.

The farm offers scale for future growth, and a good mix of topography.

The farm also plays a key role in promoting Maui Milk in offshore markets where affluent customers demand high standards of animal welfare and environmental protection.

Directly overlooking Lake Taupo, the property is subject to close scrutiny by the Waikato Regional Council. It has a very low Nitrogen Discharge Allowance (10kg/ha), because a previous owner sold some of the original rights, and now operates well under the level of most traditional sheep and beef farms in the district.

Waikino Station is also home to a dairy-sheep breeding programme based on a combination of French and New Zealand genetics. Two livestock genetics specialists, Peter Gatley and Jake Chardon, are involved in the programme. They’re aiming to produce a new dairy sheep composite for New Zealand conditions - the Southern Cross.

Maui Milk originally bought 1700 East Friesian embryos out of storage, and has agreements with Awassi Sheep NZ (Mr George Assaf) and with French owners of Lacaune dairy sheep, to introduce new genetics into NZ dairy sheep, with the aim of boosting production and efficiency.

The development of the Southern Cross dairy sheep breed stems back to the 1700 East Friesian embryos purchased by Gately and Chardon from exotic sheep pioneer Dr Jock Allison, collected and frozen in the late 1990s. He was the original importer of the East Friesian breed, which injected more milk and fecundity to NZ sheep and is now widely used in crossbreds and composites. They were surgically implanted in recipient ewes and more than 60% of the lambs were born in late 2015. 

A selection of the resulting pure EF rams were put over 4000 Coopworth ewes to create a base of Coopworth/East Friesian ewes, now being milked.

Awassi NZ rams from Hawke’s Bay were also used over EF ewes to breed the Assaf crossbred, a hybrid with improved milk yield and especially high solids (fat and protein). The Awassi is also a very hardy sheep.

Over 2000 straws of imported Lacaune semen (French milking sheep) were used over the synchronised Coopworth/East Friesian ewes last autumn. Lacaune are known for their good udder conformation and high milk yield.

Last mating 2500 synchronized Coopworth/East Friesian ewes were artificially inseminated by laparoscopic surgery and the resulting 1300 pregnancies produced lambs over a three-week period in spring. Lambs were taken off the ewes at 24-48hrs and began milking for the first time.

Mating in autumn involved over 2000 straws of French Lacaune semen and 450 UK East Friesian embryos, with backup by Awassi/East Friesian cross rams.

That will be repeated this year and some of the crossbred rams hoggets will be available for sale to other farmers.

Mating this April (2018) will see all four breeds in the one animal for the first time.

The Maui sheep flocks now contain pure EFs, crossbred Coopworth/EF, crossbred Lacaune/Cpw/EF (75% dairy breeds), and Awassi/EF (Assaf).

All four breeds --- Coopworth, East Friesian, Awassi and Lacaune – will form a composite sheep to be called the Southern Cross. Peyer Gatley, a former general manager of genetics for LIC, said it is not known which original breed will contribute the most genetic material, because that will be determined by performance data, collected on individual sheep by way of EID and milk metering.

When fully operational, more than 4,000 sheep will be milked at Waikino station, and the enterprise is seeking yields of 400-600 litres per ewe per year - similar to yields of specialised sheep internationally. France has farming systems closest to NZ and it achieves an average of 400 litres/sheep/year.

The current NZ average 100 to 150 litres or 18-27kg/ewe currently, over 180-days lactation. The Maui objective is 300-plus litres, 55kg/ewe on a 200-day lactation, always targeting efficiency of conversion of pasture into milksolids.

Figures are budgeted on the basis of $17/kg milksolids, $3/litre, on 18-19% milksolids (which is twice that of cows). The indicative price was derived from NZ goat milk returns and what Gatley and Chardon believe is a fair return to the dairy sheep farmer ($3/litre).

Despite being three times the dairy cow payout, dairy sheep produce a much lower volume of milk, for a shorter lactation, and have higher costs/kg.