Dairy farming has changed significantly over the centuries from hand milking to machine milking. The size of farms and the expectations on farmers have also changed with time. Could fully automated farming systems be the way of the future? Below is a brief history of dairy farming in New Zealand.
1814 – First cows in New Zealand
Samuel Marsden brings a bull and two heifers to New Zealand. These cows are milked by hand in sheds.
1845 – First exports
Dairy products are first exported from New Zealand – a consignment of cheese that is shipped to Sydney.
1882 – Refrigeration
Refrigerated shipping begins, with the Dunedin taking milk and butter to England – a trip that took 98 days.
Early 1890s – Early technological advances
Cream separators are installed in cow sheds and machine milking begins with the introduction of electricity. Milk factories are built.
1904 – Milk powder
The first milk powder is produced.
1923 – Dairy Board
The Dairy Board was formed, this controlled the export of all New Zealand dairy products and included responsibility for marketing. This helped drive the growth of export sales.
1938 – Electric fences
Farmers begin to use electric fences on their farms.
1945 – State of the industry
There are 1.7 million cows, 40,000 farmers and 409 dairy factories in New Zealand.
1949 – Commercial artificial insemination
In a world first, a commercial artificial insemination service is started in Taranaki and Waikato.
1951 – Milk tankers
The first milk tankers appear.
1952 – Herringbone shed
The herringbone shed is invented. This shed allows a much larger number of cows to be milked at once. The farmer works in a pit below and no longer has to keep bending down to attach and detach cups.
1969 – Increase in dairy farms
There are 2.3 million cows and 25,000 farmers, and the number of dairy factories drops to 229.
1969 – The rotary shed
The rotary shed is invented by Merv Hicks in Taranaki. This is a round shed that has a rotating platform. It allows even more cows to be milked in similar timeframes as before.
1994 – More cows, fewer farmers
There are 2.7 million cows, 15,000 farmers and 27 factories.
2001 – A transgenic cow
AgResearch generates its first transgenic cows. These cows produce modified or ‘designer’ milk. Find out more here.
2001 – Farm size increase
The average farm size is now 105 hectares (ha) and 286 cows, compared to 72 ha and 166 cows in 1990. There is not enough skilled labour to meet farm needs.
2001 – Dairy Industry Restructuring Act 2001
The Dairy Industry Restructuring Act 2001 is passed, leading to the formation of Fonterra, New Zealand’s largest company.
2001 – Robotic milking
The first Kiwi cow is milked by the robot Merlin in 2001 at DairyNZ’s Greenfield Project farm.
Find out more about the Greenfield Project.
2005 – Dairy farm numbers
There are now 12,786 dairy farms with a total area of 2.1 million hectares. The 5,152,000 dairy cows in New Zealand produce 1,213,000,000 kg of milk solids this year.
2003 – Dairying and Clean Streams Accord
In response to environmental concerns about farming, the Dairying and Clean Streams Accord is established with the goal to reduce the level of water pollution.
2017 – Size of the industry
New Zealand’s milking cow population is now 4.8 million, and dairy farming is a major part of the New Zealand economy. While there has been a decline in cow numbers, milk quantities remain stable due to cow breeds being more efficient at converting grass into milk.
2018 – Value of dairy exports
New Zealand dairy exports are valued at approximately NZ$16.667 billion. The top five dairy export products are whole milk powder, butter, cheese, infant formula and skim milk powder.
For up-to-date statistics and information, see these industry websites:
Discover more about Dairying and dairy products in this story by Hugh Stringleman and Frank Scrimgeour on the Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand website.
The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment released a report in 2019 identifying global mega trends likely to affect the future of food and farming. One of the mega trends is the demand for products to meet environmental and animal welfare concerns.