Sheep milkers explore new products, markets

Kirwee sheep milkers Matt and Tracey Jones put some of their flock through the paces in a milking...
Kirwee sheep milkers Matt and Tracey Jones put some of their flock through the paces in a milking display at the Canterbury A&P Show. PHOTO: TIM CRONSHAW
A sheep milking business born from a Canterbury family struggling with food intolerances is expanding into an export enterprise.

Sheep milking pioneers Matt and Tracey Jones are working to increase their production outside of a sheep milking processing factory run by nine staff at their Kirwee farm.

Mr Jones said the plan was to move towards producing and exporting infant formula.

"We’re working to secure a larger processing facility at a different existing factory we will be able to convert in Canterbury. That will allow us to increase our suppliers. The wee factory at home will always be our testing facility, but we have suppliers wanting to come on board, and we need to process our milk and we also need to grow our markets. Infant formula is where we are striving to be."

He said they would also look at exporting cheese and other products.

The farm factory was working 17 to 18 hours a day to keep up with processing milk from their flock of 500 sheep and about 3000 sheep under seven suppliers.

Mr Jones said they had identified a site and were doing their due diligence, while looking for investors to begin the conversion.

The couple produce a line of pecorino, havarti, and gouda sheep milk cheese under the the Jones Family Farm brand as well as making fresh milk and yoghurts.

They’re experimenting with gelato and frozen yoghurts and butter is next on the line.

In a first at the Canterbury A&P Show, they were displaying some of their products and holding milking demonstrations to curious onlookers.

Their Strathclyde Sheep Milking Stud farm at Kirwee was bought in 2011 when they were looking for a dairy alternative easy on the stomach and environment.

A year later they bought an East Friesian stud intending to supply milk for themselves.

"We were just sort of playing around in those days with two (of my three) daughters and my wife all being lactose intolerant. I milked cows and didn’t mind milking them, but I always had an affinity with sheep and was more of a shepherd than a milker and the only reason I milked cows was I could make $50 before 8am. Then I could go shepherding and do whatever I wanted to."

Initially they crossed the flock of 25 to 30 animals with mainstream breeds such as Poll Dorsets, Coopworths and Border Leicesters to improve early genetics traced to an initial pool of 15 animals brought into the country in the 1990s.

In the first few years they worked to raise their udder and foot quality and increase their hardiness to the Canterbury climate.

During overseas trips Mr Jones researched sheep milking and talked to farmers, producers and cheesemakers.

"I started to understand this was a real thing and understand the product. We were in those days really looking at it for ourselves and not a business venture because there was nothing around."

Production was lifted when they started bringing over European genetics in 2018.

The base animal remains an East Friesian crossed with the French breed Lacaune, valued for its udder quality and milk release, while Manech tete rousse bloodlines were brought in as they were hardier animals.

Ram selections are based firstly on lamb survivability followed by durability — they must walk to the milking shed twice a day for 250 days a season — and then milk production.

Mr Jones said the better genetics and breeding were paying off.

"We are starting to get a hardier animal with better constitution, better feet and good milk output. Back in 2020 there were 14 people across New Zealand milking sheep and the average production was 220 litres in a lactation. Last year we had a third of our flock average 500 litres with an average of over 400 litres across our whole flock last year."

There was more scope to develop that further as new genetics were capable of 1000 litres a lactation, he said.

Mr Jones said interest was growing in sheep milking with registrations during an open day in 2021 showing more than 100 of the 300 visitors were dairy farmers.

He said the return per hectare was on par with dairying.

"It’s a growth thing because it’s naturally A2, nine out of 10 people who have lactose problems can drink sheep’s milk and consume the product with no problems at all.

"People are looking for good gut health and a glass of cows’ milk takes four hours for your body to absorb and really start using the goodness.

"In a glass of sheep’s milk it’s 40 minutes and 68% better for you. So we talk about it being gentle on the gut and we’re about 50% gentler on the environment than our bovine cousins."


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