SALEM, Ohio — A country where sheep outnumber citizens by nearly five to one was the perfect destination for the Ohio Sheep Improvement Association. Members from the group, along with members of the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation, visited the vast, rolling hills and lush green pastures of New Zealand, a small island located in the Pacific Ocean near Australia, for two weeks in October.
“They say (the country) got about twenty million sheep,” said Roger High, the executive director of the Ohio Sheep Improvement Association and the director of livestock for the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation. “I think we seen most of them.”
Every two years, Ohio Sheep Improvement Association members take a trip to destinations in the U.S. or across the globe to learn how other regions of the world handle sheep production and agriculture. The trip to New Zealand was made up of tours across the north and south islands of the country and included stops at large-scale sheep and dairy family farms, a farm theme park known as the Agrodome and cities rich in culture.
“I always learn something on the trips and have a takeaway,” Leah Miller, an Ohio sheep producer from Millersburg who attended the New Zealand trip said. “Some of the things I’ve learned have had to do with record keeping or the timing of doing things or a reminder for why you do certain things. Many times, it’s inspirational and a motivator to step up your game for what you’re doing in the sheep industry.”
It’s hard not to be inspired by New Zealand. Beyond the breathtaking views composed of snow-capped mountains and coastlines teeming with marine life like the little blue penguin, the country is notable for how it cares for its flocks of millions of sheep. High said that many of the sheep operations they visited were large – over 10,000 head with some farms sitting on 7,400 acres of land.
Shawn Ray, a commercial sheep producer from Cumberland, said that seeing how the land is valued and how sheep are farmed and raised in New Zealand makes one “feel ashamed of what we’re doing here as Americans.”
The sheep and cattle of New Zealand are uniquely pasture-raised with forages from pasture providing 95% of the animals’ diet. High said that none of the sheep live in barns.
New Zealand is a long, skinny country, shaped a little bit like California, but about 1.5 times smaller geographically. It’s home to only 4.5 million people, perhaps naturally lending the land towards less urban use.
Pasture raising livestock also comes more easily given that the climate is prime for growing grass year-round and the country is free of predators like coyotes, wolves and bears that can prevent other sheep farmers from keeping their animals on pasture all the time.
Still, the fact that such large flocks can be raised solely on pasture is impactful to Ohio producers, High said, because many producers believe that a lot of grain is needed to rear sheep. Raising animals on pasture is simply the lifestyle and spirit of New Zealand — “their mentality,” High said.
“New Zealand grass has a higher nutritional value than ours, and they’re very deliberate about their policies on planting and managing grasses,” Miller said.
New Zealand is the second largest exporter of lamb meat in the world, according to a U.S. Department of Agriculture report. The country exports about $2.6 billion in lamb and $370 million in wool annually.
The primary breed producers raise is the New Zealand Romney, a white-wool sheep that does well on pasture. The staple length of Romney wool is very long and the animals are shorn twice per year. High said that the majority of the wool is exported to China to make carpeting. Romney sheep carcasses are also exported to the U.S. as meat.
Sheep farming has remained the backbone of the country’s economy, although dairy farming has recently surpassed sheep farming as the country’s largest agricultural industry. Dairy cattle are slowly beginning to encroach on fields once dominated by sheep as demand from southeast Asia and China rises. Much of the milk produced from New Zealand cattle is dried and exported to Asian countries as their populations grow.
In some cases, cattle and sheep share pastures, creating harmonious relationships. Miller said that in some pastures, cattle are run behind the sheep because the animals eat forage at different levels creating efficient use of the land, and this method helps to curb parasites.
Beyond the pasture
The large sheep operations are also technologically advanced, Ray said. He said that the group visited a farm where every animal was genetically tested.
“Mind you, this was about a 4,000- to 5,000-head sheep operation and they had genetically tested every ewe and ram on that flock,” he said. “During tail docking day, (the farmers) give every animal an electronic ID ear tag and take a skin sample that’s sent off to be genetically tested.”
Results from the genetic tests are linked to the electronic ear tag, which can later be used to show data to potential buyers. Ray said that when animals are pulled for potential buyers, the farmers can quickly scan electronic ear tags and display data about the animal’s heritage and growth in real time on a computer screen.
“There will be a time on our farm where we will be going to the electronic ear tags to help with the record-keeping system so records become a little easier and more efficient,” he said.
A taste of New Zealand
If you’re not already booking a one-way ticket to see New Zealand for yourself, there’s a good chance you’ll see a little bit of the countryside coming to a store near you.
“New Zealand has taken some of their best land and put in vineyards — just miles and miles and miles of vineyards,” High said.
The country is famous for its Sauvignon Blanc white wines, which are known for their “crisp acidity and vibrant tropical flavors.” Plus, a bottle is cheaper than a plane ticket if you’re craving a taste of New Zealand.
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