Tim Fulton

Sheep-milkers Guy and Sue Trafford put the total value of retail milk, meat and wool at about $9000 per hectare – comparable to milking cows.

The founders of Charing Cross Sheep Dairy usually get two lambs from each of their 200 East Friesian-Awassi cross milking ewes. The lambs are a critical part of their sheep-farming profitability.

The lambs from their 40ha in central Canterbury averaged about $140/head through the Coalgate yards over the past couple of years. The combined return from sheep-milk, cull ewes and wool was $500 a head, Guy says.

“Probably in future we’ll be putting terminal sires over everything but our replacements. If we breed 400 lambs – 200 ewe lambs but we only need 40 replacements – the vast majority should be terminal. So there’s a good market for the sheep meat.”

Guy has academic expertise in modelling agriculture systems and recommends other farmers starting out in sheep milking should aim for 200-250 litres per ewe and retail it for about $2.30/litre.

Based on that 200-litre production and that sale price of lambs you’re still making about 30% of your margin from meat, he says.

“That’s the good thing about it. You can set your flock up and have your (milking) sheds built if you want to, and if the market’s not quite ready for you, keep on farming as per norm.”

That flexibility considerably cuts the risk of investing in sheep milking.

You couldn’t yet describe sheep-milking as an industry, he says.

There have been high-profile investments in the North Island, most notably in the South Waikato by state-owned Pamu (formerly Landcorp) and the neighbouring Maui Milk.

But it’s been a mixed story in the South Island, highlighted by a large operator in Southland winding up and various processing and marketing plans in Canterbury either failing to eventuate, or yet to get off the ground.

Guy and Sue have had their own false dawns, lining up supply contracts with would-be processors only to encounter insufficient demand or unprofitable returns. It’s only now, several years into milking, that they’re securing regular sales in local markets and as wholesalers to various cheese and yoghurt artisans.

They’re excited about the prospect of soon moving into a covered 7-days-a-week inner-city market in Christchurch, operated by property developer Richard Peebles on the site of the former Re:Start Mall.

The Traffords farm 40ha at Charing Cross, among a cluster of small-scale “artisan” producers between West Melton and Darfield.

They moved to the area from Christchurch in 2012 as “earthquake refugees” and until recently both worked at Lincoln University. In January, Guy left his agriculture management lecturing position to spend more time on the farm and marketing the milk. With his own work story in mind, he recommends anyone starting out to weigh up how much time and effort it may take to rear lambs in a sheep-milking operation.

The Traffords opted for ewe-rearing partly because Guy and Sue – a communications lecturer – both had day jobs. Even now, with farming and retailing his sole focus, Guy is keeping lambs on the ewe.

He estimates it costs $70 to foster a lamb and about $75-$80 per ewe to leave them on the ewe. He finds the downside of mum-reared lambs is a small increase in udder damage and mastitis cases, perhaps when a single lamb drinks from only one udder.

But he stills finds it easier to let the ewe do the mothering through spring.

“If you let the ewe do it, it does buy you four to six weeks of time that you’re not committed to having to milk the ewe.” Rearing on mum is also a more attractive marketing story, he says.

For Guy, sheep-milking was a return to the coal-face of primary industry: he first considered sheep milking a couple of decades ago while managing a hill country station near Gisborne.

Tentative plans to take milk to market didn’t work out back then but the Traffords are giving it another go and encouraging farmers to do likewise.

Bolstered by their experience, the couple are working with other Canterbury sheep farmers to form a producer group that may ultimately be able to pool their supply to a single processer.

Meantime, knowing the uncertainty of start-up farming ventures, the Traffords are sticking to a habit of cautious investment. They originally bought all their milk harvesting gear off Trade Me from a Canterbury dairy goat farmer, Ed Moorhead, who previously ran Gruff Junction near Te Waihora/Lake Ellesmere.

It came at a “reasonable price” and Charing Cross Dairies near Darfield was able to set up its own harvesting platform, including other equipment and compliance costs, for about $180,000.


The Traffords own 10ha and lease an adjacent 30ha. Part of the property is irrigated. They milk 200 sheep at the moment, but the shed could handle 400.

Guy says they find milking sheep need to be fed better, especially while lactating. “Once they lose condition it does take quite a bit to turn them around again. It’s a bit like comparing a Friesian cow to an Angus, almost. They do need more TLC.”

Production could comfortably rise to 300 litres or more through improved breeding, he says.

Charing Cross’s East Friesians are from a line of cheesemaker Miles King’s Dairymeades. The type is only 10 generations removed from the first purebred East Friesians brought to New Zealand in the mid ‘90s but aren’t as fragile.

“They probably don’t produce quite as much either but they’re a bit more robust and resilient.”

One of the most important decisions in sheep-milking is deciding what to do with the lambs, Guy says.

“You can take them off mum at day one and foster rear them, or you can leave them on mum for four to six weeks, or longer… let her rear them and then milk the ewe after that.”

Larger sheep-milking farms tend to opt for foster rearing but the Traffords leave the lambs on the ewe. “We make it up a bit, partly because we don’t want to be rearing 400 lambs and milking a sheep and marketing it all.”