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Improved dairy sheep genetics to lift milk production

Improved dairy sheep genetics to lift
The Maui Milk-Waikino Station team busy with the milking last spring.

Genetics from the northern hemisphere are the key to making significant improvements to New Zealand’s sheep milk production, says Peter Gatley, General Manager at Maui Milk.

He says all dairy sheep in New Zealand right up until now were built on an east friesian platform, from a handful of sheep that entered the country in 1992– effectively ageing 1980’s genetics.

“No-one in New Zealand has milked a true modern high performance dairy ewe – but that’s about to change because of last years importation of a substantial amount of new genetic material from the UK and more particularly France.”

Established as joint venture between Waituhi Kuratau Trust (WKT) and Shanghai based Be Well Food Group in 2015, Maui Milk owns two dairy sheep farms along the western shores of Lake Taupo.

The first of the two farms had been converted to sheep dairy by the Iwi owners in 2007. Peter says they had done some pioneering work on milking sheep but lacked a reliable outlet for the milk.

“I was taken on as general manager of the joint venture and we set about lifting productivity on the WKT farm by bringing it more in line with international sheep milking practices. But it was obvious that we would be constrained unless we could get our hands on some new and improved dairy sheep genetics.”

Waikino Station was purchased in 2016, with a view to taking a greenfield approach to boosting milk production.

Located 20 minutes up the road from the WKT farm and also on the lake front, Waikino enabled the ability to scale up in terms of stock numbers – necessary for the genetic programme Peter and his team were embarking on.

With free draining pumice soils, the 770ha total/330ha effective farm provides a good platform for foot health with very little facial eczema challenge. Peter says that it is a great spot for growing lucerne, integral to the farm system.

He says the thing that needs the dramatic improvement is the sheep themselves and the particular strength that Maui Milk has is in the business of genetics.

In addition to Peter’s own experience as past General Manager of Genetics at LIC, the team includes Jake Chardon who has spent a lifetime in genetic improvement, and Marion Beniot. Hailing from the South of France, she holds a Masters Degree in Genetics.

Consistent with the bigger sheep milking operations in New Zealand, production currently sits at 100-150/litres/ewe per lactation, which might only be 120-150 days.

“We’re milking 2000 sheep at Waikino, with potential to increase that. We can milk 1000 an hour through a purpose built 64-bale rotary shed from the South of France. The sheep drop their milk pretty quickly really– at the moment its 2-2.5 minutes. We’re looking forward to having to slow the platform down, milking bigger volumes.”

Through improved genetics and integrated farming systems at Maui Milk, Peter is looking to achieve 2 litres per day on average, over closer to 200 days lactation.

“At the moment we’re milking sheep derived from that original importation of East Friesian genetics, but we’ve recently brought in embryos carrying new East Friesian bloodlines from the UK.”

With an infusion of Middle Eastern Awassi blood in 2016, Maui Milk has now complemented the new East Friesian and Awassi with a fusion of pure Lacaune semen from France using progeny tested sires with breeding values on all the important traits, including milk volume, percentage components, udder conformation and temperament.

“We did 2500 laparoscopic AI’s at 300 a day. So all of a sudden we have genuine outcross, modern, highly developed genetics being used on our Waikino farm and the first of the progeny will be milked as hoggets in the coming spring.”

Peter says that Maui Milk now has East Friesian Awassi cross animals being inseminated with Lacaune in coming weeks and so there will be lambs on the ground in spring containing all three breeds and they will be milked as hoggets in 2019.

While lacaune is expected to make the biggest contribution out of the three breeds, Maui Milk is “breed agnostic”. “We simply put the genes into the mix and then select on performance.”

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