The meticulous work of pioneering milking sheep farmer Miles King, of Kingsmeade Cheese, has been recognised with an official new sheep breed, DairyMeade. Susan McLeary explains.

Don’t take this the wrong way, but Miles King loves sheep. He and his wife Janet established their 11 ha farm and together built their house outside Masterton 20 years ago.   

He says he’s “always been fascinated by sheep, wanted to explore milking sheep and making sheep cheeses.”

In dairy-dominated New Zealand, where sheep were all about meat and wool, this was a big step into the agricultural unknown.

So in 1996, Miles began a specialist milking sheep breeding programme that has culminated with the formal recognition of the DairyMeade breed by the New Zealand Sheep Breeders Association in June 2016. 

It’s the first specialist milking sheep breed developed in New Zealand, and honours their Kingsmeade Artisan Cheese brand.   

“Importing live sheep was prohibited back then, so we bought East Friesian semen straws, and chose Coopworth and Border Leicester ewes as the ‘starter’ host breed.

“From the Friesland area in The Netherlands, the breed was used to mild summers and indoor wintering in a cold climate.  

“Acclimatising them to New Zealand conditions was our first priority, including protection from sunburned ears and udders, adjusting to year-round outdoor life and different stock management practices. The Coopworths and Border Leicester genetics contributed significantly to the suitability for New Zealand conditions,” explains Miles. 

Building up the flock over 20 years, Miles kept meticulous records. Every single animal born on the property has been documented, and it’s this unique database covering 5000 animals that underpins the recognition of DairyMeade as New Zealand’s first dairy sheep breed.

Miles is quick to acknowledge the help and support of Professor Roger Morris of Massey University, who designed the flock improvement programme. “His encouragement and help made a massive difference,” comments Janet. 

Recently, Massey geneticist Professor Nicolas Lopez-Villalobos introduced genetic analysis methods, so that all animals are ranked on their genetic merit over many generations.  It takes 4-5 generations to breed out the original host genetics, so the King’s flock is recognised as purebred DairyMeade. 

Other Wairarapa breeders have joined DairyMeade’s programme, with ‘daughter flocks’ nearby building numbers in the genetic improvement programme.  This means breeders will be able to supply other sheep milk producers with verified pedigrees and objectively measured genetic merit.  It also helps grow the sheep milk cheese sector.

Meanwhile on the farm, 200 milking ewes are enjoying life and their lambs.  East Friesians are good breeders, often producing triplets, and thriving on lush pasture including clover, chicory, plantain and lucerne. Twelve hundredtrees provide shelter and shade from summer heat and winter cold. 

They are easy to handle, and come eagerly to Miles at the distinctive rattle of food in a bucket.  Miles says “Summer milkers enjoy being milked, and at the same time we can check their health and well-being”. 

Originally Miles taught himself to make cheese, from both cows’ milk and sheep. Marketed under the Kingsmeade brand in their own deli in Lansdowne (run by Janet), Kingsmeade is available in speciality stores around the North Island, and luxury lodges.  

Miles and Janet would like to see more regional and varietal cheeses. Their labels are colour-coded showing the milk’s origin, and the cheeses are all regionally named, their ‘signature’ Tinui Blue, and Opaki Machego sheep cheeses, Ngawi Brie and Lansdowne Gouda from cows.  

In 2015 Kingsmeade Cheeses won the Wellington On a Plate MiNDFOOD Best Sustainable Producer and Top Producer Awards.   

Nowadays, Roberto the Italian cheese-maker is the latest import to advance the DairyMeade programme, but that’s another story.