Born out of a need to find a solution to their daughter’s dairy intolerance, Kirwee farmers Matt and Tracey Jones have embarked on a new venture milking sheep, producing skincare products, farm-made cheeses, yoghurt and bottled milk. They’re also behind a push to prove sheep milking is a profitable and environmentally friendly alternative to traditional dairying.
At a time when New Zealand is re-evaluating its farming practices due to environmental concerns, sheep dairy owners and entrepreneurs Matt and Tracey Jones believe they have found the answer. They’re convinced sheep milking has the potential to be Canterbury’s next big thing, replacing their bovine counterparts.
Since launching Sheep Milk New Zealand in mid-2019, the couple has developed their own fresh milk product range, Jones Family Farm, and skincare range, Sabelle, as well as selling raw milk to other producers.
Interest in the South Island’s sheep milking industry is on the rise. This season they have five farmer suppliers on board collecting milk from 3000 sheep with more lined up for next season. Plans are also progressing for a milk drier plant in Ashburton, capable of drying half a tonne per hour, with hopes it will be up and running by 2023.
The business has developed into something much bigger than the Jones’ ever anticipated when they first got into milking sheep more than a decade ago. “One idea just grew into another one,” says Matt. “We do enjoy doing business and developing business ideas, and this time it’s in the food sector. We didn’t set out to get this big. It’s just happened. We are only at the start of the journey.”
For the Jones’, it’s just the latest business venture in a long list which includes recruitment and training companies covering agriculture and construction. Their roots are firmly entrenched in the farming industry though. Tracey grew up on a sheep and cropping farm at Lauriston, near Methven, while Matt grew up in Ashburton, leaving school as a 16-year-old to work on farms. Later, he did a farm cadet scheme, before setting himself up in south Otago, living in a house bus, with a team of dogs, working as a casual labourer.
Matt returned to Mid Canterbury in the 1990s.
Seeing a need for casual labourers, they started the Mid Canterbury Casual Employment Service. Having first met as teenagers, Matt and Tracey got married 20 years ago. Together they started the agricultural recruitment company, AgStaff, in 2001, which now has offices in Ashburton and Pukekohe. While another company, Canstaff, specialises in construction industry jobs and now has six New Zealand locations – plus Sydney, Manila and London. They have a City and Guilds-accredited training company in London, teaching construction trades, and are behind the new agricultural training venture Agri-Training Limited, based at the former Winchmore Research Station. They are also involved in a Wagyu breeding and feeding company.
Despite their sheep farming background though, the couple did not know the first thing about sheep’s milk when their youngest daughter, Gabrielle (now 15), was diagnosed as gluten and dairy intolerant as an infant. Determined to find an alternative to cow’s milk that supported gut health and provided much-needed nutrition without exacerbating her eczema, Tracey started researching plant and other animal products. “I was mixing up the goat milk powder for my daughter when she was only two, which you know can taste and smell a bit like a goat, and I thought to myself ‘there must be something better than this’.”
The deeper Tracey dug, the more they became convinced sheep’s milk was the best option. Although the centuries-old practise never really took off in New Zealand (until now), it’s popular across Europe and the Middle East.
“What sold us on it was just how good the product was when you compare it to other milk and juices (coconut, oat, almond, rice and soy),” says Matt. “It’s not only more gentle on your gut, but it’s also more gentle on the environment. Cow’s milk is absorbed in four hours, whereas sheep milk is absorbed in just 20 minutes.”
The nutritional value is quite different to cow’s milk. Sheep milk contains 68 per cent more protein and twice as much calcium, zinc and leucine. It contains B vitamins, vitamin C and is naturally low in sodium. Sheep milk infant formula is easier for babies to digest due to the fat and protein components. It contains only A2 beta-casein, which is suitable for those who react to the A1 beta-casein in cow's milk. Its fat is also naturally homogenised and has smaller fat globules that make for creamier milk that's easier to digest.
When they moved to Kirwee in 2011, Tracey and Matt purchased part of an East Friesian stud from Central Otago. “They certainly weren’t the best ones, but at the time it was all that was available. We were just breeding a few rams at the start.”
In 2015, Matt and Tracey started visiting farmers and processing companies around the world, including in the UK, Ireland, Canada, Switzerland and the Netherlands. “It not only gave us a good understanding of what the industry was like overseas but what it could be here [in New Zealand]. We could see huge potential.”
“There was hours of research and hours of work before we could even start. When you’re starting from zero, there is an element of: ‘How are we going to do this?’ There was a lot that had to happen first,” adds Tracey.
From the outset, they knew success hinged on securing the right genetics to breed a sheep suited to milking in Canterbury’s extreme conditions. Before 2017, virtually every sheep milking operation in New Zealand was dependent on a tiny shipment of old East Friesian genetics that had arrived in 1992. Originally brought in to lift fecundity and put more milk into meat and wool breeds, they were never intended to create a sheep dairy industry. That all changed when Maui Milk got approval from MPI to import genetics from France, opening the door on the importation of semen and embryos, explains Matt.
“The East Friesians have terrible feet, horrible udders, have no vigour and tend to die on a whim, but they are very fertile and produce a huge amount of milk. The lamb rearers wouldn’t touch them.”
While they had been working away, slowly improving their flock year-on-year, the advent of bringing semen and embryos from the UK and Europe allowed for massive genetic gains to be achieved in a short time frame.
Through Maui Milk, the Jones’ brought in frozen semen from progeny tested Lacaune sires. Developed to support the extensive and popular sheep dairy industry in France, the Lacaune offered good yield, components, milk quality and good functional udders. Predominantly an inside animal in France though, they are born with little to no wool, don’t have great vigour and have feet problems. “It gave us a good starting point though,” he says.
In recent years, the Jones’ have brought in new bloodlines of pure East Friesian and Lacaune through embryos and semen. Rather than going down the Awassi route, a milking sheep breed popular in the Middle East, they have also introduced Manech tete Rousse bloodlines from the western Pyrenees.
“They are milking them a couple of hundred metres above sea level. They are very hardy, have smaller ears with some pigmentation and black feet. They’re well adapted to long treks along the steep slopes of the Pyrenees,” says Matt. “Ultimately, what we are trying to produce here is an animal that can live outside all year round, have the feet and the ability to walk and milk for 280-300 days of lactation, producing 80-plus milk solids in a season.”
While the bulk of the milk production comes from the East Friesian, the Jones’ have teamed it up with the Lacaune and Manech to produce a strong, hardy flock suited to their environment, delivering nutrient-rich, high protein milk, but they don’t think they’ve nailed it for South Island conditions quite yet.
“We are still playing around with it, but we’re getting close,” says Matt. “Everyone wants production, but in the North Island, the focus is on facial eczema, whereas we need to focus on breeding for extremes. Down here we can go from -10 degrees in the winter to 40 degrees in the summer.”
After years in the pipeline, the Jones’ finally took the plunge and began milking in 2019. They converted an old deer shed on the property into a barn and installed a 12-bay herringbone milking plant from Nelson. And they haven’t stopped milking since.
Matt says producing milk was the easy part, they still had to find a market for it. “We had a cheesemaker that wanted the milk, but when he took a holiday, we didn’t have anywhere to send the milk.” It wasn’t long before they realised they needed their own on-site processing and cheese-making plant.
Having suffered for many years with her own allergy problems, Tracey had a gut feeling that people with skin problems could benefit from skincare made from sheep milk, blended with the natural healing properties of Manuka honey. That led to the production of Sabelle, a skin and body care range, made in Nelson. Sabelle is a combination of their three daughters’ names - Annabelle, Samantha and Gabrielle.
Under the Jones Family Farm brand, they have also started selling sheep milk Gouda and Havarti, with plans to launch an aged cheddar and creamy blue cheese. “We wanted it to be an everyday cheese that anyone can eat. We want people to eat it because they want to, not because they have to,” says Tracey. They have also just started selling fresh, pasteurised sheep milk in supermarkets, and have plans to move into yoghurt next year.
Today, on their 48-hectare milking platform they are milking 600 ewes, made up of 250 hoggets, 200-second lactation ewes, and mixed aged ewes. They run a hybrid farm system with sheep free to graze paddocks all-year-round. Sheep are fed indoors using a conveyor belt on a daily ration of lucerne silage, grains and minerals. Outside, pastures are predominantly herb-based with a mixture of plantain, chicory, and red and white clover, along with straight stands of red clover and lucerne. They also bring in feed grown off-farm. It is irrigated with water from CPW.
On average, the ewes lamb at 180 to 200 per cent, with lambing starting in July. Lambs remain on their mothers until four days old, after getting essential colostrum. They’re then removed and put in a shed and transitioned onto automatic feeders. They receive ad-lib milk for the next 20-25 days, along with silage and muesli. They’re weaned off milk at around 25 days.
All lambs are weighed and tagged at four days old, and again at weaning. Their goal is to get the lambs to 5.5kg at four days old, and over 15kg at weaning, but they’re not quite there yet, says Matt.
Though Matt believes they still have a lot to learn, he’s confident they’re on the right track. “Last season, 330 hoggets went to the ram and we only got 26 empties. Even though they are artificially reared, we must be doing something right if we are getting those kinds of conception rates.”
He attributes much of their success down to the constant recording of data. All their sheep are EID tagged, recording every drop of milk from every animal. The best ewes are transferred to the milking herd, with the culls going into the breeding flock, while the best rams are retained for the stud. “We work on the philosophy that if we don’t measure, we can’t improve it.”
Matt and Tracey are supported by farm manager and head cheesemaker, Juan Cavallotti. Originally from Uruguay, his heritage is Italian, from a family who has milked sheep for generations.
Early in the piece, Matt and Tracey realised sheep milking had huge potential in Canterbury and were determined to bring others along for the ride. They established Sheep Milk New Zealand to build a thriving South Island sheep dairy industry, providing ready-made markets and investing in infrastructure. They are also setting up a farmer-owned co-op which will give farmers access to high-value genetics.
“We are running this farm as a bit of a pilot farm to help other people so that they have access to the genetics and information to be successful. You can’t just go and buy a milking flock like you can a dairy herd.”
After 10 years of staying under the radar, in February, the Jones’ welcomed more than 300 people onto their home farm for a Sheep Milk New Zealand open day. It was the first time they had opened the lid on what they had been doing. It was attended by industry people, dairy farmers, and sheep and crop farmers looking for alternative income streams from throughout the South Island.
“The level of interest completely blew us away. Of the 300 people who attended, 45 were keen to do something within the next two years. We are still working with that group.”
Matt says it’s no secret that traditional dairying in Canterbury cannot keep farming with the same intensity that it has been. He genuinely believes there will be fewer cows in the South Island in the future.
“Sheep milking’s environmental footprint is 50 to 70 per cent less than our bovine friends. The economics also stack up. We’ve got lambs on the ground from second lactation dams that have done 180 milk solids in a season, that’s 1000 litres in a lactation. That’s the potential you can get to. Last season the price for milk solids for sheep milk was $14.20. At that rate that would blow bovine away when you consider you can run about 14 sheep per hectare. The potential is huge, we just have to get the animals to produce it.”
Sheep Milk New Zealand was limited not only by milk supply to grow production but also by processing capacity. As more suppliers come on board, a bigger facility will be needed. Despite the uncertainties caused by COVID-19, the Jones’ are pressing forward with a multimillion-dollar processing and drying plant in Ashburton. They had originally hoped to have it open in 2022, but it has been delayed 12 months. They have fielded calls from plant-based industries, as well as goats and bovine to use it as well.
“That’s when things get really serious. We are talking about a huge investment. It’s already started with all the money being spent on consultants,” says Matt. “It is really exciting. We’re only just getting started. The job is not even half done.”