Craig Pritchard

Sheep dairying in New Zealand has entered a new era. New product launches this August have underlined its strengths and helped to shed its reputation as a quirky and fringe farming sector.

Key to this has been demand for sheep milk infant formula. After a long development project, Spring Sheep, the Pamu (Landcorp) joint venture, now with two 800-ewe farms near Cambridge as well as its 2700-ewe operation near Taupo, launched its new stage three infant formula in Malaysia in August. And hot on its heels, the European-owned formula giant, Danone, launching its Maui Milk-sourced stage three sheep milk product into the Australia market. Both Spring Sheep and Danone plan to have stage one and two products available in the new year as supply increases.

Meanwhile, the first of Spring Sheep’s contract suppliers began milking 670 sheep near Karaka in South Auckland (see related story p32) and Maui’s first contract supplier, Toni and Allan Browne’s Astra Farms near Cambridge, is gearing up to start milking 800 hoggets in the 2020-21 season. And not far from Cambridge, the new Food Waikato-run specialist milk dryer, which will produce much of the powder for Spring Sheep and Maui, is expected to be ready early in 2020.

On the back of this, North Island farmers are catching on to sheep dairying. Maui and Spring Sheep are both working with a strong list of potential new entrant suppliers keen to pick up the sheep milk baton. For the many hundreds that visited the SheepMilkNZ stand at National Fieldays this June, sheep dairying seems to have lost its connotation as a ‘whacky or bizarre’ farm diversification option. Instead, it is increasingly seen as a serious means of producing a higher value product, offering protection against bovine milk price volatility and potentially improving environmental performance.


However, outside the Waikato, the sheep dairy story is much more mixed.

Last year the sheep milk business owned by industry pioneer Keith Neylon which had been milking New Zealand’s largest dairy flock, and which featured extensively in Country-Wide’s 2015 sheep milk feature, didn’t milk a single sheep during the 2018-19 season. The company failed to agree a milk supply contract with Chinese-owned Blue River Dairy.

In what is clearly a huge blow for New Zealand’s fledgling industry, Blue River owner Yuanrong Chen shut Blue River’s Invercargill sheep milk dryer and began importing both whole sheep milk and sheep whey protein powders from Sardinia. Chen bought an Italian sheep milk powder producer, Alimenta, in 2017.

The company now mixes imported Italian sheep milk into infant formula at its Invercargill factory, taking advantage of the New Zealand reputation for premium infant formula production, before it is labelled ‘Manufactured in New Zealand’ and sent to China for sale. Antara Ag’s failure to milk last season was a huge financial loss to the company.

However, the expectation is that this business will return to milk production next year, having spent time strengthening its breeding programme and farming systems, and working on new manufacturing options.

The closure of the Blue River milk dryer, and the lack of other large-scale manufacturing options is acting as a brake on the sheep milk industry in the South Island and not just for Antara Ag. At a special sheep and goat milk workshop in Canterbury earlier in the year, which attracted more than 80 potential new entrant producers, access to a specialist milk dryer was the main focus of discussion. If a dryer was available, there’s little question that sheep dairying would quickly shift from small-scale artisan production to a serious conversion option for Canterbury farmers – particularly those facing higher irrigation costs and rising environmental pressures.

With that said, however, the group of Canterbury sheep milkers, like others around the country, are finding a market for their milk with local artisan cheese makers. Miel Meyer, board member with the NZ Specialist Cheese Makers Association, told this year’s SheepMilkNZ Conference in March that there was strong interest from NZ’s supermarket chains in sheep milk cheeses, and he and many of his fellow producers were dead keen to work with milk producers on supply arrangements. However, he noted such arrangements would likely require close to year-round supply and deliveries in thousands of litres rather than the hundreds of litres that small artisan producers work with.


Foodstuffs and Countdown representatives confirmed their interest. Sherrell Smith, head of Chilled Foods at Foodstuffs, said sheep milk was on the rise. She was interested in bringing New Zealand sheep milk cheese and yoghurts into the company’s supermarkets, but consistency of supply had so far proved the key stumbling block.

Meanwhile Nikhil Sawant, Head of Perishables, Deli & Bakery for Countdown Supermarkets said that sheep and goat products are perceived by consumers to be healthier than cow milk products and while cheese doesn’t occupy the ‘health’ slot for consumers, there was no reason why it couldn’t in the future. He also noted there was significant scope to increase the amount of volume of specialist cheese consumed. New Zealanders eat about eight kilograms of cheese per year which is low by western standards, he said.

Efforts to grow the consumption of NZ sheep milk cheeses with domestic and potentially offshore consumers could offer other returns. While significant volumes would be needed, whey from sheep cheese and yoghurt production is potentially a valuable by-product as infant formula makers will be required to import whey protein from Europe to make up these specialist powders. Substituting NZ sheep whey protein for imports would help support the quality and nutritional claims of NZ infant formulas.

Despite the many hurdles involved in producing sheep milk, particularly the ongoing challenge of increasing per-ewe production, a range of new specialist cheese, yoghurt and flavoured sheep milk products will be finding their way to more consumers in coming months.

In Wairarapa, the Ravenwood family began producing their Fernglen-branded flavoured sheep milks earlier this year. So far supply has been limited to the lower North Island, but the farm family business, which processes their milk at the Kingsmeade cheese factory near Masterton, is expecting to be sending supplies north to supermarkets in Hamilton and Auckland over the coming months.

Meanwhile, well-known Gisborne cheese maker Waimata Cheese is about to launch a new range of sheep milk cheeses from locally sourced milk. In Hawke’s Bay, former Waiheke Island sheep cheese producer James Clairmont is about to produce his first season of sheep milk with plans afoot to produce Craggy Range Sheep Dairy branded cheese and ice cream products in 2020. Alongside the Maui Milk and Spring Sheep infant formula launches, these new entrants have buoyed the sector. But there have also been some casualties beyond the loss of the Antara-Blue River tie up.


Last summer’s severe Nelson drought saw the temporary closure of sheep cheese and yoghurt maker Thorvald. Since then the company has switched to a more southerly milk supplier and new season production is expected to start shortly. In the North Island three small scale producers, each milking less than 100 sheep, have shut up shop in the last two years. For each, the cost of milking low volume dairy sheep on a small scale simply undermined their visions of making a living. However, in all three cases their animals, equipment and expertise have found their way to the homes with new producers looking to put their businesses on a sounder commercial footing.

While still tiny, even by comparison with NZ’s dairy goat industry, and despite the casualties, the current crop of new entrant sheep milk producers are entering a sector that continues to ride a wave of consumer focus in alternative milks, particularly those with compelling health, taste and environmental benefits. And while infant formula and cheese will inevitably form the industry’s core products, there is significant scope for value-creating innovation in these areas. Cookable cheeses, drinkable yoghurts, and long-life milk products including fresh infant formulas are likely to be important options for producers, particularly as the health benefits of sheep milk highlighted in the recently completed AgResearch and Auckland University clinical trials begin to filter through to consumers.

But perhaps there are other options, outside of food, that the new sector has yet to grasp? For example, just how sheep milk’s unique fat and protein properties can be employed in hand, skin and face creams is unexplored. Whatever direction new products take the industry, 2019 will likely be recalled as the year that it came of age as a serious new farming sector.