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  • 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.

    Rights: Te Aroha & District Museum

    Hand milking a cow

    Early cheeses were produced on the farm using milk obtained by hand milking a few cows.

    1847 – First export of cheese

    Cheese was exported from Wellington – 40lb worth £2 at that time.

    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.

    Rights: A Taranaki dairy farm. McAllister, James, 1869-1952: Negatives of Stratford and Taranaki district. Ref: 1/1-007882-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

    Early dairy farm

    Bush was cleared for farming in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Bush was felled and burned, then oversown with clover and grasses.

    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.

    Rights: Careers NZ

    A herringbone milking shed

    In a herringbone milking shed, 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.

    How do robots milk cows?

    There are two problems which a robotic milker has to deal with while milking: each cow is unique, and each time she comes for milking her teats will be in slightly different positions. The robot must be able to cope with these differences and adapt to each situation without wasting time.

    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.

    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.

    2008 – Greenfield Project farm closes

    In November DairyNZ announces the closure of the Greenfield site as it has proven that automated milking can be successful within the New Zealand pastoral system

    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.

    Rights: The University of Waikato Te Whare Wānanga o Waikato

    Infant formula

    Most infant formula is made from cows’ milk that has been modified to make it suitable for babies. It is one of New Zealand’s main dairy exports, valued at approximately NZ$1.2 billion in 2018.

    2019 – Shift to crossbred cows

    Farmers are increasingly shifting to crossbred cows to benefit from the efficiencies of hybrid vigour and to achieve the best traits from the two main dairy breeds. As at June 2019, 48.5% of cows are Holstein-Friesian/Jersey crossbreed and 33.1% of cows are Holstein-Friesian, 8.6% are Jersey cows and 9.8% of cows are other breeds.

    Related content

    Find out more about the work being undertaken by AgResearch on producing transgenic cows and about DairyNZ's robotic milking programme.

    Discover more about farming development and how it has impacted our environment in this article and in this timeline.

    Useful links

    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.

    This 2019 news article aims to summarise the major government and Reserve Bank policy changes currently underway and to provide some context around these changes.

      Published 1 March 2006, Updated 17 March 2021 Referencing Hub articles
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