Managing one of the world’s most innovative sheep farms focused on breeding a superior milking ewe is the dream job for Katy Day. What makes it even more fantastic is the fact that she and husband Jason can share every aspect of their farming lives with their children, twins Cody and Delta, 14, and Troy, 12.
“Our children are our world and one of the major reasons we took this job is because the owners are happy for the children to be on the farm to help and learn and share what we do,” says Katy, who manages the 770-hectare Waikino Station on Lake Taupo’s western shore.
“On so many farms today children are not allowed to do that, but we believe kids learn so much from farming, including risk management, which prepares them well for later life.”
The family moved to Waikino Station, home of Maui Milk, in July last year before the property’s extensive complex of barns and high-tech dairy were complete. “We were lambing 2000 ewes with work going on all around us.”
Six months on and Delta, Cody and Troy know so much about the farm and the sheep that they were able to confidently talk to many of the more than 400 visitors, including Chinese investors, who attended two open days in January.
It’s exciting for Katy and her family to be living and working on the station, which is a showcase for an ambitious and innovative venture which proposes an alternative future for New Zealand’s dairy and sheep industries.
That innovation includes not only the state-of-the-art ewe milking dairy, but also a programme to produce a superior milking ewe, bred specifically for New Zealand conditions.
Leading that work are Peter Gatley, general manager of Maui Milk, and Southern Cross Dairy Sheep and geneticist Jake Chardon who have secured the genes necessary to create a crossbred milking sheep with genetic diversity and hybrid vigour.
These sheep will incorporate the main northern hemisphere dairy sheep breeds (East Friesian, Awassi and Lacaune), with a Coopworth base to create a new breed, to be known as the ‘Southern Cross’.
Progress towards producing the Southern Cross sheep includes mating last autumn involving more than 2000 straws of French Lacaune semen and 450 UK East Friesian embryos, with backup by Awassi/East Friesian cross rams.
“At lambing time we had extra help from a small team of French people experienced in milking ewes. Some were fluent in English but others not, so we got by with a lot of sign language. We learned such a lot from them on how to manage these ewes,” says Katy.
Managing a dairy sheep farm was not somewhere Katy ever envisaged her farming career would take her. She grew up on a deer farm near Taupo and went on to manage small drystock and calf-rearing units before joining husband Jason working in the pest control industry for 10 years.
“We worked throughout the Central North Island trapping possums and then had three years doing the same work in the South Island where we got to see some amazing scenery.”
When Katy became pregnant with Cody and Delta, she and Jason moved north again and Katy took up a position on a dairy farm.
Katy’s most recent role was as second-in-charge for the Chinese-owned company ‘The Land’ on a dairy farm at Rangitaiki on the Napier-Taupo Highway. “Last winter we were snowed in for 10 days, with no power.”
Much to learn
Katy was encouraged to apply for the Waikino Station job by friends. “We stayed on the station to get a feel for the property and in effect had a two-day interview. We love it here. It’s a beautiful part of the world and the role combines what I’ve learned about sheep farming and dairying, but there is so much more to learn.”
The major difference between milking cows and milking sheep, says Katy, is “you don’t have to shear cows”.
“The sheep are shorn twice a year, and we don’t empty them out by keeping them off the grass as you would in drystock farming.
“Instead they go to the shearing shed straight from being milked and shearers have to learn to shear them with full bellies, and be very careful of those precious little teats which produce the milk.”
Because ewes’ milk is a relatively new human food product in New Zealand, work is also being done at Waikino on withholding protocols for veterinary medicines required to ensure the animals are healthy.
The station is also trialling different pastures for the sheep. “We have plantain on the hill country and lucerne on the flatter areas and interestingly the weight gain on both types of pastures are the same, which is impressive for hill country.”
Katy is looking forward to this spring when the first ewe crosses of the new breed come into milk.
“Training the existing ewes was quite hard work but I think this next generation are going to be so much easier. Already one of the lambs has managed to sneak in with the milking ewes and figured out she gets fed if she steps onto the rotary platform. She did it three times and seemed very happy.”
The development of Waikino Station has been funded by the Maui Food Group Ltd, a Shanghai-based marketing company. That company formed Maui Milk with joint venture partner Waituhi Kuratau Trust, which had pioneered sheep milking in the region in 2007.
Maui Milk has invested heavily in the concept of milking sheep in New Zealand, including in the purpose-built dairy with its 64-bale internal rotary imported from France. The plant includes in-line electronic milk meters, automatic cup removers, backing gates, and an adjustable height platform in the pit to ensure comfort and ergonomic efficiency for milkers. Milk from the farm is collected by a tanker for transport for processing at the Waikato Innovation Park.
The extensive complex adjoining the dairy and its yards also includes a lamb-rearing facility and two large barns complete with feed conveyors, capable of housing 1000 ewes each.