New Zealand has produced a number of valuable sheep breeds such as the Coopworth over the last hundred years, but none of them were specialist milking sheep breeds. The special health benefits of sheep milk and its value in producing highly regarded cheeses, yoghurts and other specialty products has led to a surge in establishment of milking sheep flocks in New Zealand. However New Zealand has not had a sheep breed selected for milk production, which could be used to build the genetic merit of the dairy sheep industry.
That problem has now been solved with the establishment of the DairyMeade breed and its adoption on 30 June 2016 as one of the breeds recognized by the New Zealand Sheep Breeders Association. Establishment of the breed is the culmination of twenty years selective breeding of milking sheep by Miles and Janet King of Kingsmeade Artisan Cheese Company in Masterton. Kingsmeade has won many awards for its cheeses and its company management, but in the background it has also been developing its own sheep breed. Based principally on the European East Friesian breed, it also had an infusion of Coopworth and Border Leicester stock in the mid-1990s to enhance its suitability for New Zealand conditions. Following establishment of the foundation flock in 1996, selective breeding for both milk yield and number of lambs (up to 4 per lambing for some ewes) has been undertaken continuously, with full pedigrees being maintained on all breeding stock throughout the twenty years.
All of this historical data is now stored in a computer database, reaching 5,000 animals this year. The flock has been progressively moved to selection on objective appraisal, and has installed electronic milk meters to record yield regularly for all ewes. The flock improvement program has been designed with assistance from Professor Roger Morris, and the latest genetic analysis methods are now being used by geneticist Professor Nicolas Lopez-Villalobos of Massey University to rank all animals on their genetic merit, using their own and their ancestors’ records.
With daughter flocks now developed by other Wairarapa breeders who are members of the DairyMeade breeding group, the number of sheep in the genetic improvement program will grow steadily, and the breeders will be able to supply other sheep milk producers with breeding stock of known pedigree and objectively measured genetic merit. This will make a valuable contribution to the growth of the dairy sheep industry in New Zealand.