S2 Ep5: Cam Ravenwood, Fernglen Farm

Sheep milking is providing the perfect value add, and creating opportunities for the whole Ravenwood family, at Wairarapa’s Fernglen Farm.

Sheep tick all the boxes for this entrepreneurial family, from a nutrition, sustainability and environmental perspective.

The picturesque coastal farm is home to 1300 milking ewes, which are milked once a day at a purpose-built facility on the property, near Riversdale beach. The milk, which provides a nutritious alternative to cow’s milk, is turned into a number of products, including flavoured milk and yoghurt.

Cam Ravenwood has a passion for nutrition, especially its role in sports and muscle recovery, and became interested in sheep milking after seeing a newspaper cutting in 2015, his last year at high school.

“There was an article dad had cut out, it had very little information but said at the time sheep milk was selling for $18/kg MS. The whole concept of sheep milking was new to me, but I thought why are more people not doing it if it’s returning $18/kg MS?”

Fernglen Farms
The Ravenwood family are adding value through milking sheep on their Wairarapa farm.

A Google search revealed the nutritional value of sheep milk, and as a sports and nutrition fan, his ears really pricked up.

The whole family loves animals, and sheep are their favourite to work with. From an environmental perspective, as a smaller, lighter animals, sheep are kinder on the soils and urine patches are spread out and less concentrated, which ticked another box. 

Collectively, they decided sheep milk could be a great fit with their existing farming system. “We’ve always been interested in controlling our own destiny instead of just being a supplier and accepting whatever the spot price was at the time,” he explains.

“Sheep milk is a good alternative to people who can’t drink cow milk, it really fills a need, which is something people are finding more and more…we are trying to have an animal alternative that fits that need, so consumers have an option other than plant juices that may not have the same nutritional qualities.”

Fernglen Farms
Cam and Ben Ravenwood with the Fernglen Farms van.

Fernglen Farm is focused on pasture to product production. Animal welfare is a high priority, and they were the first dairy farm to receive the SPCA Animal Welfare Certification.

Every life is valuable at Fernglen. Lambs are not viewed as a by-product and stay on mum until weaning (at least 40 days and a minimum of 14kg). There is no wastage in the system, as all lambs are weaned onto pasture and kept for breeding as replacements or sold store as a meat animal.

“It interested us for a start because of the nutrition, and as we looked into the broader more holistic benefits, we got really excited about the concept of sheep milking. We are trying to make the whole system as efficient and economic, and animal welfare friendly, as possible.”

The 1300 ewes are milked year-round as a split flock, spring and autumn, and the milking flock makes up just one part of this diverse farming operation.

The farm comprises about 1150 hectares, half in native bush and pine trees, and the contour ranges from steep hill country to rolling hills and terraces. The milking platform is 60ha of strong flat land. The farming enterprise includes ewes on the hills, a bull component and cow herd, as well as the sheep milking.

“The sheep milking is starting to become more of a major piece of the puzzle but we are trying to be diversified and not have all our eggs in one basket. It was another way at looking at future proofing the business.”

The Ravenwoods milk a range of breeds, with genetics predominantly originating from Europe, that are specially selected for their milking properties. Their flock includes East Friesian, Lacaune and Awassi ewes. The majority of the flock now is a Lacaune East Friesian cross. The goal is to select the sheep that perform the best in the outdoor, once-a-day milking system and they breed all their own replacements.

Overseas, most sheep milking operations are indoor barn systems, Cam says they have been surprised how well the sheep handle the outdoor system. They select animals based on key traits of milk production, let down, teat placement, body composition, mother ability, feet and temperament.

As well as their parents, all three of the Ravenwood children are involved with the business, with brother Ben hands-on with branding, factory management and logistics. Sister Baeley helps in the factory and on-farm. Cam has a strong passion for farming and is also involved with branding, marketing and the factory. 

“It certainly has allowed us to come home and all be involved in the farming business. My brother is probably not overly interested in being a farmer, but is passionate about New Zealand farming and creating good products. In that sense it has given him the opportunity to stay involved.”

To learn more about the benefits of sheep milk, and how the Ravenwood family decided to diversify their Wairarapa farm to include a sheep milking platform, listen to the latest episode of Down to Earth, out now.