A Waikato family is among a handful taking the leap into a new dairy industry that could generate $250 million in export products by 2024.
Brothers Brad and Kieran White quit their corporate jobs after successfully pitching a new business idea to their parents, Paul and Dianne, to start a dairy sheep milking operation.
“We were looking for a succession plan, to get the boys into the dairy industry,” Paul White said.
The White family: brothers Brad and Kieran and their father Paul, with some of their ram lambs on Green Park Sheep.
“They brought the [dairy sheep] idea to us and it looked like it had a lot of potential. We ran the budget and the numbers looked impressive.”
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Paul White is an experienced dairy cow farmer but moving to dairy sheep has been an exciting learning curve.
The family already had a 520-cow dairy farm near Te Awamutu but were encouraged by the forecast growth in dairy sheep, not to mention its lower environmental impact on the land, compared to cows.
A recent report funded by the Provincial Growth Fund researching the development of the sheep and goat milk industry showed New Zealand exports of sheep milk products were valued at about $20 million.
It was expected to lift to $250 million in 2024, through further production of high value products such as infant formula.
The Whites wanted to keep their family farm where youngest son Andrew was contract milking.
The old cow shed was converted into a new system designed specifically for milking sheep. It can milk the farm’s 850 sheep in a couple of hours.
So they visited other sheep milking operations to learn what was involved and at the end of 2019, purchased another property at Kio Kio, between Te Awamutu and Ōtorohanga.
They signed up to supply Maui Sheep Milk which gave them a level of income certainty heading into the new venture.
Further investment was needed to convert the property, now called Green Park Sheep.
It included new fences, drains and shade trees. Waikato Milking Systems converted the existing herringbone cow shed into a rapid exit sheep system, the first of its kind for the company.
The farm bought its milking ewes from Maui Sheep Milk. Animal numbers could increase from 850 to 1200 next year.
The Whites bought ewes, in-lamb, from Maui Sheep Milk and started supplying milk in August.
The flock is 860 sheep, with room to move up to 1200 in 2021. The sheep are milked twice a day, each one taking about three minutes to milk out. Two people can milk the flock in about two hours.
Milk collections are twice a week, for FoodWaikato’s open access processing plant at Innovation Park in Hamilton.
“It’s early days and we are really still learning,” Brad White said.
“There are only a handful of suppliers and everyone is working and learning from each other, about best practice, what works best of each farm because we’re all set up differently.”
Maui Sheep Milk and Spring Sheep are the major processors, based in the Central North Island.
Maui has six suppliers, including two of its own farms and four independent farms, like the Whites.
Spring Sheep has a similar mix, four independent suppliers and three of its own.
Both report keen interest from farmers researching a switch to dairy sheep and they plan open days in the coming months to share more information on the industry.
Spring Sheep will hold its Farm Open Day 2020 on November 4 at its Tauwhare Farm in Waikato.
Maui planned a series of meetings and farm visits at Lake Karapiro near Cambridge on October 22-23.