Is Blue River Dairy saving the sheep industry?

Is Blue River Dairy saving the sheep industry?

Sixty-something entrepreneur Keith Neylon's company is one to watch after 10 years investing in plant, genetics, farms and an entire system to produce sheep milk products, as Peter Kerr finds.

Being the farm raised boy I am, I’m keen on the idea of clever new and profitable products from our ability to convert sunlight, soil and water into them. So, Blue River Dairy, the sheep milk products company which is over 10 years old, is something to keep an eye on.

It is the creation of Keith Neylon, a 60-something entrepreneur, who has had previous lives in deer recovery (owned 10 helicopters at one stage) and salmon farming (co-pioneered its development in NZ) among other things. He was semi-talked into exploring sheep milk potential by a meat company chairman – and saw opportunity.

There’s sheep milked around the world – but almost all is consumed in Spain, Portugal, Sardinia (four million sheep for two million people) and their own country of origin.

There’s was also an Asian and China angle. Over 85% of these countries’ peoples are allergic to cow’s milk. The result has been over a decade’s worth of front loading all the expense of setting up a market to production entity, investing in plant, genetics, farms and an entire system to produce sheep milk products.

He didn’t do things by half during this ‘research’ phase. Keith spent three months on an Israeli kibbutz that was one of its top sheep milk farms. Some of the knowledge from these experts has been incorporated in BRD.

Now, year round (having perfected lambing five times in two years), 4000 ewes are milked twice a day. A new drying plant in Invercargill receives milk that has had 85% of its water removed on-farm, and most of it converted to whole sheep milk’s powder, canned onsite, most as infant formula. This sells at a considerable premium to cow’s milk powder, though as Keith explains, it is better.

Sheep’s milk takes a baby 30 minutes to digest, compared to four and a half to five hours for cow’s milk. It has 500% more vitamin D. It doesn’t make babies skin become rashed.

Currently, hundreds of thousands of cans are tied up on China’s borders as The Middle Kingdom sorts out an issue of what it considers to be too many (up to an estimated 2000) brands of infant formula). This will pass. But Keith is more than confident that at least 10 million milking sheep would not be an oversupply and continue to hold a price premium.

He says BRD has the best genetics, allied to a retail market position that is way ahead of any other land-based product from New Zealand. He envisages a revitalisation of the sheep industry based on their milk – and remember they still produce lambs and wool.

Another strong point in sheep milk’s advantages is that “you never get leaching off sheep country.”

Keith is proposing that farmers become participants in the opportunity through a franchise-like system (including the all-important supply of sheep genetics), in which New Zealand, and its reputation and image, deliver high value products to a growing market.

This potential is one reason Landcorp is seriously considering an sizeable investment in the industry – perhaps alongside BRD. I was privileged to hear him speak recently in Wellington.

This is ballsy entrepreneurship (a 10+ year lead time!), that plays to our strengths. One day I predict he’ll be acknowledged as the man who saved the sheep industry.

This post first appeared on Stick.