Sheep Dairying at Kingsmeade

August 2015

Miles and Janet King are pioneering sheep milkers and cheesemakers

Pioneering Masterton sheep milkers and cheese makers Miles and Janet King believe there’s an exciting future ahead for the sheep milk industry in NZ.

Sheep milk holds the promise of being a potential money maker for New Zealand farmers, with the bonus of a lower ecological impact, which is currently being quantified by AgResearch.

An estimated 50 per cent of Asians are intolerant of cow’s milk. There is a high demand for infant formula, bulk milk powder, and cheese, and research is being carried out into other sheep milk products for the international market.

The nation’s largest farmer, Landcorp, has recently announced that it is soon to start milking sheep in the Central North Island. Federated Farmers is enthusiastic about the idea and the Government has given AgResearch $6.6 million to investigate how to grow the industry.

Miles King started off as a sheep and beef farm manager. In 1996 he and wife Janet bought Kingsmeade, an 11-hectare block just north of Masterton, with the intention of raising a few sheep and milking them. They bought 60 ewes and AI’d with East Friesian semen. The East Friesian were originally brought into NZ to improve the fecundity and milking ability of the national flock.

Initially Miles says he and Janet hoped to earn an income from selling just the milk but it turned out there was not much of a market for the milk.

So they invested in a cheese factory.

The property is 11 ha but they have two other lease properties where they keep their young stock. It’s good flat land and is close to Masterton.

There are around 200 milking sheep. The fact that milking sheep was pretty much an unknown practice in New Zealand when they started their sheep cheese business in 1998 meant that much of what they’ve achieved has been learnt through trial and error.

Cheese making was a complete mystery to Miles before he and Janet started. Miles says he’s learnt on the job and says he’s still learning about the art of cheese making.

Among the cheeses they make are feta, pecorino, blue, manchego and brie.

Miles has a personal love of blue cheeses and his Tinui is one of the more popular cheeses in the Kingsmeade range.

About 20 per cent of their products are sold through their own delicatessen, fronted by Janet. The rest largely goes to stores such as Moore Wilson’s in Wellington, Farro Fresh and Nosh in Auckland, and New World supermarkets in Thorndon and Island Bay. Luxury lodges and specialty delis also buy their cheese.

Miles focuses on cheese making. Two fulltime staff have their areas of responsibility in the cheese factory in the morning, and in summer also do milking in the afternoon in the 10-a-side herringbone system.

While Miles looks after the farm, the milking and the cheese making, Janet’s strength is production, marketing and distribution. She looks after the shop they keep in Masterton and, along with their worker, dispatches all the cheese from that location all around the country. She’s an articulate front person for their label and has lost count of the number of places where she’s been to speak on behalf of their business and their industry. She says she still believes word of mouth is one of the best marketing tools.

Sheep cheese as a business is immensely complex and takes a great deal of hard work. Janet is proud of how they have balanced that while keeping their integrity.

The sheep have been bred for four main traits: constitution, lactation length, temperament and lifespan.  Miles says temperament is key – you want to have relaxed animals when you’re milking them every day.

By constitution, he means the length of the udders, vital for ease of milking. He points out that most sheep udders are short and face forward, whereas the East Friesian’s udders are long and face down.

Sheep bred for meat or wool have a short lactation season, long enough to raise lambs. King has bred his East Friesians to start milking in August and to be still producing in April.

Finally, he has bred his sheep for long lifespan, an average of five to six years.

Rather than wean his lambs early as other farmers do, he waits for six weeks, ensuring the lambs receive full attention from the mother.

The breeding work has been a labour of love – and highly satisfying. With the recent boom in sheep milking, a number of people have beat a path to his door keen to get some of his purebred friesians.

In 2014 Miles and Janet won the MiNDFOOD Producer of the Year award. Janet says the awards evening was like Oscars night and gave both of them a real boost.

The judges said that one of the reasons Kingsmeade was judged overall winner was its organised and comprehensive business strategy, divided into five key areas: pasture management; genetics; milking; recipes and development; and production and distribution. Their business sense extends to their decision to supplement the shorter milking season of ewes with cow cheese, which makes up their profit in the winter.

As winners of the Best Sustainable Producer award, Kingsmeade also impressed the judges with the measures taken to ensure minimal impact on the environment. There are a lot of trees planted ;solar panels are used for water heating; water is recirculated and cleaning water used twice; and their whey waste goes to local pig farms.

Miles also mentions that there is research currently being undertaken by AgResearch to quantify their impact on the environment in comparison with other milking animals.

Miles and Janet are encouraged by Landcorp’s entry into the sheep milk industry. They think it bodes well that such a big farming entity has starting investing in sheep milking. But Miles says it is not a simple matter of hill farmers rounding up their sheep and herding them into milking sheds.  It has taken time and effort to get to the place they are at now – they’re certainly no overnight success story.