Gunson Sheep Milking

May 2014

Creating a sheep milking business in Hawkes Bay

Kat & Andy Gunson are milking sheep part-time for a boutique cheese making business in Hawkes Bay.  Their vision is to grow the business to a stage where they can build a financial case for milking sheep fulltime.

In 2006 Andy and Kat bought a 17acre property on Glenross Road in Waiwhare. They had been playing at cheese making in Taranaki and had been thinking about setting up a business milking sheep and making cheese. The property they bought had poor fertility and old grass, with lots of bull rushes. The intention in those early few months was to get a line of ewes and start breeding.

That summer Kat and Andy’s father went through his flock of Highlander ewes and selected 40 of the best, for udder characteristics.  They then added Miles King’s East Friesian ram (from Kingsmeade cheese) in Masterton.  Since then they have tried a range of breeding strategies.  Poll Dorsets were a double leg kicking failure, both on the platform and on the shearing board.

During the last few years they have got to around 75% East Friesian and they are using a Poltex ram over the non breeding ewes.

They started three years ago milking ewes outside the woodshed on a temporary platform, with one set of clusters and a test bucket with an extension cord to the shed.  They’ve now graduated to the shed with an 8-bail for the first full season last year . They have been concentrating on milk quality and getting weaning strategies right. Weaning has been a long and involved story.

Milk quality has been all about getting it to the vat really cold as they hold it for up to three days on the farm.  Deliveries to Origin Earth are made three times a week.  The milk is taken in 20litre buckets.

Improvements have been focused on the land.  They’ve been clearing old pines off the property and improving forage/pasture.  They’ve also been keen to get the soil productive and healthy by attempting to balance soil nutrition and biology. They’ve used a biological fertiliser provider called Abron.

Kat and Andy lease 35 acres off Kat’s retired mother in Crownthorpe, which they use as a runoff block for wintering in lamb ewes.

Financially it has been a struggle.  Andy’s salary has helped to prop the place up from time to time. The couple have invested a lot of money and time into getting things working and getting statutory compliance, whilst not over capitalising.  The biggest outlay has been in establishing a relationship with manufacturing company Origin Earth. This has been the linch pin in getting their milking project off the ground, as the Origin Earth directors are motivated and have kept them focused on the bigger picture. Now that they are into their second milking season, the milk is flowing a lot better and they are finally starting to get their heads above the water.

Plans for the future include :

  • Establishing a second later lambing smaller flock to lengthen the milking supply season for products such as fresh milk and yoghurt (e.g. short shelf life products)
  • Improving soil biology and renovation of pastures
  • Working on feed consistency so sheep stomach biology is not being stressed having to adapt to different forages e.g. minimize the change in forage feed, or establish more mixed pastures (herbs, clovers, legumes, grasses)
  • Working on weaning strategies.  In particular looking at experimenting with 24hr weaning and seeing what this does to peak milk production and mastitis
  • Getting a tractor.