Lynda Gray

By 2023 all of Spring Sheep’s raw product will come from outside suppliers.

“We’re marketers and as we grow the markets we’ll back-fill supply,” Spring Sheep chief executive Scottie Chapman says.

In the meantime, the company, a 50:50 partnership between Pamu (Landcorp) and sales and marketing company SLC, is continuing to fine-tune proof of concept sheep dairy systems on three farms. One of the farms is Landcorp-owned at Reporoa, near Rotorua, where a large scale indoor/outdoor system is run. On the two smaller farms near Cambridge, an outdoor and a hybrid indoor-outdoor system have been developed.

This season, which started in early August and will run until late April, Spring Sheep is milking 5000 ewes, and taking milk from one farmer supplier.

“We’re only just starting to look at extending the supplier bases. We hope that next season another four or five suppliers will be added.”

There’s been lots of interest in sheep milking, especially from cow dairy farmers who Chapman says are the ideal candidates.

“There’s no shortage of potential suppliers but we’re being careful about who we select.”

As well as being within two hours of Spring Sheep’s processing hub at the Waikato Innovation Park, potential suppliers need to align with the company’s brand values and animal welfare systems.

Based on the company’s trial work it looks as if a commercially viable system milking 800-1200 ewes could be developed from 45-60ha of traditional cow dairying country. The ewes would need to produce 250-450 litres per ewe per season to achieve a good return, which is now possible with the rapid upgrading of the ewe milking genetic base over the last few years.

Underpinning the trials is a $30 million Primary Growth Partnership project started in 2016 called Sheep – Horizon Three. The broad goal of the six-year project is to build a high value and sustainable sheep dairy industry that by 2030 will be generating at least $200 million of annual gross revenue.

Chapman is no stranger to what naysayers might regard as fringe ventures. He and business partner Justin Hall launched Old Mout cider after being told that New Zealanders wouldn’t drink cider. He copped similar flack when he decided to pursue sheep milking.

“Where we are now with sheep milk is where we were with cider 10 years ago.”

“Consumers are looking for dairy alternatives for health reasons and that have a reduced environmental footprint.”

He believes that environmental pressures could lead to up to 20% of dairy farmers converting to sheep milking over the next decade.