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Canterbury: The land of sheep's milk and honey

Tags: Canterbury Rural

Further diversification of Canterbury’s rural production sector will help keep the region’s economy resilient and growing in a sustainable way.

Sheep farming was once the stronghold of Canterbury’s agricultural sector, but animal numbers have fallen in the last 20 years as more and more farms have been converted to dairy. The Canterbury Report profiles Darfield farmers Guy and Sue Trafford, who both lecture at Lincoln University.

A wide range of possible land uses were considered in the Potential for Diversification of Rural Production in Canterbury report, prepared by The AgriBusiness Group on behalf of Canterbury Development Corporation (CDC), released earlier this year. A number of products were identified through the research that appeared to provide potential for profitable and sustainable growth, including potential for investment by processors.

The products included pharmaceutical crops, sheep milk, honey and blackcurrants. Since that report was published, additional work has been undertaken to better understand the production viability of the products identified. One that has started to gain traction is sheep dairy.

This is an attractive option in Canterbury because of the relatively low amounts of nutrients it leaches into water and the region’s strong history of sheep farming. Darfield couple Guy and Sue Trafford, who have been involved in farming for more than 40 years, established Charing Cross Sheep Dairy.

They started sheep milking in October and they believe there is strong potential for the industry to develop in Canterbury.

“We are talking with about eight or nine other parties in the region that are considering it themselves. Obviously there is a significant financial investment needed but this could be a real game changer for many people,” Guy said.

Currently, there are approximately 35,000 - 40,000 sheep being milked in New Zealand.

Another sheep dairy advocate in Canterbury is Ian MacDonald, who has developed a mobile milking machine that can travel from farm to farm around the region. Ian, who is based in North Canterbury, acknowledges there are barriers that need to be overcome before the sheep milking industry can take off.

"I believe the two biggest obstacles are the setup costs for buying plant and machinery and the lack of milk genetics. Sheep dairy also needs to be market-led. Kiwis are great at producing, that's not the issue. The issue is making sure the market research is done first because there are some great markets out there."

Sheep dairy farmers with sheep

Image source: Stacey Squires/Fairfax NZ

Federated Farmers North Canterbury Meat and Fibre Chairperson, Dan Hodgen says there is a place for diversification in all industries and every economy.


Sheep Milking Main Photo

“At this stage I haven’t seen any indications that there is room for a large-scale sheep dairy industry, but there are definitely niche markets." 

CDC Sector Leader Agribusiness Jim Grennell says the report was seen as a way to get the rural community thinking about alternative types of primary product that could be generated in Canterbury.

“Diversification will help minimise the risk to the economy as a whole if certain sectors are under pressure, such as the dairy industry at present with low milk prices and the effects of variable seasons starting to hit.”

Jim said there was also likely to be added-value processing investment opportunities in Canterbury as a result of diversification.

Guy and Sue Trafford often joke they could be living in the South of France by now — but have instead chosen to invest in pioneering sheep milking in Canterbury. The Darfield couple, who lecture at Lincoln University, have established Charing Cross Sheep Dairy after building up a flock of 180 sheep on 10 hectares over the last three years.

The Trafford’s are in discussions with New Zealand premium ice cream producer Deep South, who are interested in making ice cream from sheep’s milk. “There is potential scale here too, for example in China for baby formula made from sheep’s milk. Thirty percent of Chinese are lactose intolerant, but 95 percent of that group can have milk from small mammals,” Sue said.

In 2012, the Traffords started to establish their flock after buying some mixed East Friesian and Poll Dorset ewes, with these breeds known for their good milk production. They also bought a pure East Friesian ram and kept working towards their end goal of creating a flock for milking. The following year they drew up plans for a dairy shed and also acquired a milking plant.

“Once we bought the plant, we were really committed. That made it real, we just needed to pull it all together,” Sue said. The shed was built earlier this year and milking began in October.

Initial milking will help test the plant and equipment and give the couple an opportunity to start working on different recipes. They are going to focus on ice cream but believe there are other products the market is keen to have.

The Traffords are, where possible, working with others in Canterbury who are interested in setting up sheep milking.

“At this end of life we could have retired somewhere and be taking it easy. But it’s exciting to think we could be pioneers of a new industry. Either that or we are crazy,” said Sue.

Source: Canterbury Development Corporation

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