Farmer Info

Our Dairy Sheep Genetics

From Humble Beginnings

Did you know that, until this year, all milking ewes in New Zealand could be traced back to 4 rams and 11 ewes imported in 1992?

This means the gene pool for our milking sheep was incredibly small and that simply wouldn’t do! The East Friesian sheep were brought in to improve milk production in our meat and wool breeds, not to create a dairy sheep industry. They can produce milk, but in their pure form were found to be not robust enough to do well in New Zealand’s outdoor farming systems.  To solve this issue, we’re creating our own hybrid dairy sheep suitable for the New Zealand environment.

Creating New Zealand’s Super Sheep

It took two years to achieve the first importation of new dairy genes. In the meantime, in 2015, our genetics team, Peter and Jake, sourced 1700 East Friesian embryos that had been frozen in the late 1990s and implanted them into ewes at Awapai in Hawkes Bay to create purebred rams. These were bred with Coopworth ewes to create first-cross (F1) progeny.

In 2016 we leased five rams from New Zealand’s only Awassi breeding programme. We mated these rams to our pure East Friesian ewes, creating a hardy breed mix known as Assaf, the predominant milking breed in Israel and the most popular option in countries such as Spain.

As soon as MPI developed an import protocol for the UK we sourced new and improved East Friesian genes in the form of embryos. These were implanted into recipient ewes here in 2017.

The Power of Lacaune

From the very beginning, we were convinced that the French Lacaune breed would be key to our New Zealand sheep milk programme. The French have milked sheep for centuries, and selected on traits that are also important in New Zealand such as milk volume, components, udder conformation, temperament, and suitability for grazing.

The problem was that the Lacaune genetics are notoriously hard to secure. The French farmer-owned breeding co-operative, Upra Lacaune, operates the largest and most sophisticated genetic improvement programme for dairy sheep globally, and generally does not sell to anyone other than their own members. After several reciprocal visits, we secured a supply of frozen semen from a wide range of Lacaune progeny tested sires. In 2017, we introduced Lacaune genetics into our flock via a large programme of laparoscopic Artificial Insemination.

Diversity is Best

Peter and Jake have had long careers in dairy cattle and deer breeding before they began working with dairy sheep. Their approach is science-based and focuses on performance.

This means they are “breed agnostic”, and highly value genetic diversity and hybrid vigour. To create robust dairy sheep for the New Zealand environment, Jake and Peter developed a hybrid carrying genes from the four foundation breeds: Coopworth, East Friesian, Awassi and Lacaune.

Southern Cross Breed is Born

By incorporating Northern Hemisphere genetics, we’ve engineered a new crossbred dairy sheep suitable for the Southern Hemisphere. This new breed has now been registered with the New Zealand Sheep Breeders Association and is known as the Southern Cross™.

We’ve created Southern Cross Dairy Sheep Technology Ltd which runs our genetic improvement and farm system development programmes on Waikino Station near Lake Taupo.

Our Genetics In Action

In August 2018 the first Southern CrossTM milking sheep genes stepped onto the milking platform at Waikino Station and boosted our milk production performance.

Over the coming years we are excited to see large improvements in productivity as three factors come into play: incorporation of more advanced dairy genes, improved age profile of milking ewes, and selection of the progeny that perform best in our environment.

Factors That Will Improve Milk Yields

  • More Advanced Dairy Genes
  • Improved Age Profile of MiLking Ewes
  • Selection of High Performance Progeny

Southern Cross Genetics On Your Farm

We’ve got the genes you need to enhance the performance of your dairy sheep herd or start a dairy sheep operation. Contact us to learn more.

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