Sheep milk genetics programme established
In 2015 Maui Milk purchased Waikino Station farm, on the shores of Lake Taupo, and converted it to a dairy sheep operation—and home to Southern Cross Dairy Sheep Technology.
When Maui Milk was formed in 2015, it was immediately evident that a new breed of sheep was needed, due to the existing operators routinely diluting the dairy genes available at that time to low levels to enhance ewe survival. The result was low yields.
In any livestock farming operation, it’s essential that the animals be well matched to the farm system, and the New Zealand system is unique.
Maui Milk choose to farm outdoors and created a seasonal, pastoral farm system, built a French internal rotary milking platform, cultivated an extensive area of lucerne for grazing and silage making, and established a unique genetics breeding programme to support their mission. Learn more about Maui Milk >>
Benefits of farming outdoors using a seasonal, pastoral system
Our customers prefer milk to be produced by animals that have room to move, fresh air to breathe, and fresh pasture to eat.
Sheep have a lighter environmental ‘hoofprint’ than cows.
The New Zealand climate suits outdoor farming, and it is more efficient, provided of course that the farmers have suitable dairy ewes.
The Southern Cross™ breed—for Maui Sheep Milk
Maui Milk employed specialists to develop a sheep dairy breed suitable for the New Zealand outdoor farming environment.
Peter Gatley and Jake Chardon had extensive experience running genetic programmes, Peter as General Manager Genetics for LIC (responsible for breeding most of New Zealand’s dairy cows), Jake as CEO of Holland Genetics (a truly global bovine dairy genetics company). They were soon joined by Marion Benoit bringing valuable experience from France which is regarded by many as the home of the most highly developed sheep dairy industry.
After performance testing several potential foundation breeds they identified those with the most to contribute to the creation of a composite breed incorporating northern hemisphere genes in a form suited to our farm environment – the Southern Cross™.
The Southern Cross has been accepted by the New Zealand Sheep Breeders Association as a new breed, and the name is protected by Trade Mark.
Our breeding goal
Efficient conversion of pasture into profit.
The first task of any genetic improvement programme is to identify the most appropriate breeding goal.
For the Maui Milk genetics team this was easily done. Peter and Jake had observed the evolution of the bovine industry’s goal and the lessons learned from unbalanced focus whether that be on gross production or Traits Other than Production (TOP).
Image from left: Peter Gatley and Jake Chardon
Pasture into profit
Refinement over decades resulted in the development and adoption of an industry-good goal for dairy cattle summarised as the efficient conversion of pasture into profit.
The principles of converting grass into milk apply equally in sheep dairy.
Accordingly, the key traits of interest closely match those in the bovine industry:
- Milk yield
- Udder conformation
The history of our breeding programme
In a few short years our genetics team sampled genes from four potential foundation breeds and selected the best to create a dairy ewe for a New Zealand seasonal pastoral farm system.
East Friesian Rams + Coopworth Ewes
The pure East Friesian rams from the embryo programme were mated to Coopworth ewes in 2016 and the resulting F1s were also milked at Waikino.
Recognising that the 1992 importation represented an extremely small gene pool and therefore did not provide the best foundation for a sheep milking industry, our team looked for outcross options. No ovine germplasm had been allowed into NZ from the UK or Europe for about 25 years because of biosecurity concerns, but Dr Allison and veterinarian Ken Cottier were enlisted to work alongside MPI to create an import protocol.
This work enabled new East Friesian bloodlines to be imported from the UK in time for the 2017 mating season when embryos were implanted into surrogate mothers at Waikino.
Coopworth ewes pictured.
The limited number of pure East Friesian rams resulting from the 2015 embryo programme were used to begin upgrading large numbers of ewes by creating F1 offspring. The maternal breed was chosen on the advice of Dr Allison who had observed many East Friesian crosses during the 1990s and was most impressed with the Coopworth.
The Coopworth was developed by researcher Ian Coop at Lincoln College in the late 1950s as a dual purpose (meat & wool) producer. It resulted from Romney ewes being mated to Border Leicester rams, and is recognised as easy-care, highly productive in a pasture system, with excellent temperament and great mothering instinct.
The breed made rapid genetic progress based on strict selection criteria using data rather than phenotype, so progress was not slowed in pursuit of ribbons in the show ring.
4000 Coopworth ewes were selected from several top-ranked NZ North Island studs.
When we established our breeding nucleus at Waikino Station, 4000 Coopworth ewes were selected from several top-ranked North Island studs and were mated in 2016, wintering well on the shores of Lake Taupo to produce first-cross offspring in spring.
First Lacaune-cross lamb born from AI at Waikino Station
French agriculture is famous for its operation of large scale, scientific genetic programmes—their sheep dairy industry ranking among the best.
The Lacaune breed is the mainstay of the French industry which is most famous for its Roquefort cheese. Only milk from the Lacaune breed can be used to make Roquefort. About 2000 herds totalling 800,000 ewes are milked in the south of France where the cheese is aged in limestone caves, as it has been for hundreds of years.
Created in the 19th century in France from small local breeds, the Lacaune has been selected for more than 60 years. Lacaune breeders decided to join their efforts in a cooperative system and focus on improving their ewes to fit their industry, market and needs. They developed a national performance record and genetic evaluation system that enabled the Lacaune to be become the first dairy breed in the country, and the first dairy sheep breed to access genomic selection in the world.
The Lacaune breed is selected to improve milk yield, but more traits were added to the program strategy overtime (like high components and low somatic cell count) that are important for (raw) cheese making and good udder conformation. Also, there are two Lacaune breeds in France. One is specialised in milk production and the other is dedicated to meat production—showing that the breed can produce good lambs too.
There are several features of the French genetic programme that make the Lacaune the most attractive source of dairy genes for a New Zealand hybrid.
Grazing animals need to walk freely and lameness is to be avoided. This is a notoriously difficult goal for sheep generally, especially on productive (rather than very dry) land. Source genes are subject to selection pressure and Southern Cross™ animals selected as sire rams or ram mothers must have sound feet. Feet require monitoring and foot bathing and trimming is common practice or will allow the ewes to perform to their genetic potential.
We have found Southern Cross™ ewes to be highly fertile. There is no problem creating pregnancies so it is important to be disciplined in the approach to hogget mating. Small hoggets will get pregnant but must be well grown to show their genetic potential for milk production.
> Lambing percentage
Ewes typically scan at 160-180% which is ideal. Twinning is maximised.
> Facial eczema
There is no performance testing of rams for FE tolerance as the trade-off against other traits would be unacceptable. Management options include pasture spraying, zinc supplementation and particularly, use of crops such as chicory and lucerne. Alternative grassing options have an important role to play during the FE season as ryegrass is generally sub-optimal at that time of year anyway, and good nutrition is important in late lactation and the tupping season.
> Carcass conformation
As dairy animals, Southern Cross™ are slower to finish than animals bred primarily for the meat industry, but they are ultimately weighed, graded and subject to the same meat schedules as other sheep. French farmers with Lacaune animals earn about 30% of their income from meat and the breed retains some selection pressure on carcass conformation.
Southern Cross™ Rams
Southern Cross™ rams are bred on Waikino Station where ewes are performance tested and recorded in a commercial environment, and the best are selected as ‘ram mothers’. They are mated with progeny tested sires via laparoscopic (surgical) Artificial Insemination and all progeny are DNA parentage tested to ensure recording accuracy.
Teams of Southern Cross™ rams are leased to Maui Milk suppliers for each mating season. This system offers the farmer several benefits:
- Two tooth rams are supplied at a ratio of about 1 ram:70 ewes ensuring plenty of sires to do the job.
- A new cohort of rams is supplied every year to ensure genetic gain and genetic diversity while avoiding inbreeding.
- Genetic diversity is further enhanced by the use of complementary bloodlines within each team of rams.
- All rams have several progeny tested sires in their pedigrees.
- Farmers do not need to have rams on the property outside the tupping season.