Dairy farming in New Zealand

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Farmland near Leigh

Dairy farming in New Zealand began from small beginnings during the early days of colonisation by Europeans. The income from dairy farming is now a major part of the New Zealand economy, becoming an NZ$11 billion industry by 2010.


In 1814 the missionary Samuel Marsden introduced the first Shorthorn dairy cows to the Bay of Islands from New South Wales. From the 1840s, most settlements had farms with some Shorthorn dairy cattle. Herds tended to be larger near urban areas.[1]

The first dairy co-operative was established on Otago Peninsula in 1871. In 1881, the newly arrived colonist William Bowron gave a series of lectures propounding the notion that the institution of dairy factories, for the mass production of cheese, would be greatly advantageous to the economy of New Zealand.[2] He was largely instrumental in the establishment of the Ashburton Cheese and Butter Factory at Flemington, managed by William Harding, son of the Cheddar Cheese founder Joseph Harding.[3] The venture was a great success, and consequently Bowron was appointed Government Inspector of Dairy Factories in 1883.[4] In this capacity, he largely facilitated the setting up of factories across the country until his death in 1890.[5] He published three pamphlets on the manufacture of cheese, butter and bacon in New Zealand.[6]

By 1920, there were 600 dairy processing factories of which about 85% were owned by co-operatives.[7] In the 1930s there were around 500 co-operatives[8] but after World War II, improved transportation, processing technologies and energy systems led to a trend of consolidation where the co-operatives merged and became larger and fewer in number.[9] By the late 1990s, there were four co-operatives: the Waikato-based New Zealand Dairy Group, the Taranaki-based Kiwi Co-operative Dairies, the Hokitika based Westland Milk Products and Tatua Co-operative Dairy Company.[7]


Dairy export volumes for year ended 31 March 2007[10]
Product Volume (tonnes)
Whole milk powder 682,000
Butter 420,000
Skim milk powder 368,000
Cheese 303,000
Ingredients 209,000
Casein 206,000
Other products 142,000

New Zealand is the world's eighth largest milk producer, with about 2.2% of world production.[10] Total production was 1.3 billion kg of milk solids, and NZ$8.38 billion of dairy products were exported in the year ending 30 September 2007.[11][12]

Traditional Dairy production areas are the wetter areas of the country: Waikato, Taranaki, Southland, Northland, Horowhenua, Manawatu and Westland. Before the advent of refrigerated shipping in the 1880s, dairy production was entirely for local consumption, with butter and cheese usually being produced on the farm, with the surplus being sold to the community via the local store. Small dairy factories began to be established in the 1880s, and soon there was one in almost every village in dairying regions. Production began to be centralised in the second half of the 20th century, with facilities such as the Fonterra plants at Whareroa (near Hawera), Edendale, Clandeboye (near Timaru), and Te Rapa being the four largest in the Southern Hemisphere. Whareroa is also currently the largest dairy factory in the world by milk intake.

Fonterra is the largest processor of milk in New Zealand. It processes 94.8 percent of all milk solids from dairy farms.[11] Other large dairy companies are Tatua Co-operative Dairy Company, Westland Milk Products and Synlait.

There are approximately 4.2 million dairy milking cows in New Zealand, and 5.26 million dairy cattle in total at 30 June 2007, an increase from 3 million in 1982.[13] In mid-2005, there were 12,786 dairy farms, with a total area of 2.1 million hectares.[11]

Pest and diseases[edit]

Bovine tuberculosis is currently (2012) endemic in possums across approximately 38 per cent of New Zealand (known as ‘vector risk areas’). In these areas, nearly 70 per cent of new herd infections can be traced back to possums or ferrets. The Biosecurity Act 1993, which established a National Pest Management Strategy, is the legislation behind control of the disease in New Zealand. The Animal Health Board (AHB) operates a nationwide programme of cattle testing and possum control with the goal of eradicating M. bovis from wild vector species across 2.5 million hectares – or one quarter – of New Zealand’s at-risk areas by 2026 and, eventually, eradicating the disease entirely.[14]

Possums are not native to New Zealand, and are considered both an agricultural and a conservation pest. They are controlled through a combination of trapping, ground-baiting and, where other methods are impractical, aerial treament with 1080 poison.[15]

From 1979–1984, possum control was stopped due to lack of funding. In spite of regular and frequent TB testing of cattle herds, the number of infected herds snowballed and continued to increase until 1994.[16] The area of New Zealand where there were TB wild animals expanded from about 10 to 40 per cent.

That possums are such effective transmitters of TB appears to be facilitated by their behaviour once they succumb to the disease. Terminally ill TB possums will show increasingly erratic behaviour, such as venturing out during the daytime to get enough food to eat, and seeking out buildings in which to keep warm. As a consequence they may wander onto paddocks, where they naturally attract the attention of inquisitive cattle and deer. This behaviour has been captured on video.[17]

Environmental impacts[edit]

Dairy farming is being increasingly held to account for the environmental impacts of the industry. Fish and Game started the "dirty dairying" campaign to highlight the effect of dairying on water quality. As a response to the campaign the Dairying and Clean Streams Accord was established in an attempt to reduce the level of water pollution. The family owned Crafar Farms have borne the brunt of the prosecutions and have been labelled the "poster boys for dirty dairying" by Environment Waikato's regulatory committee chairman Ian Balme.[18] Information released by Dairy NZ in 2014 showed that as a direct result of the Sustainable Dairying: Water Accord all New Zealand dairy companies now have programmes in place to assess the effluent systems of suppliers on a three-yearly basis, with several companies assessing every farm every year.[19]

Milk pricing[edit]

In 2011 controversy arose over the retail price of milk in New Zealand, leading to an enquiry by a government select committee and a small scale price war.[20]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Hugh Stringleman and Frank Scrimgeour (1 March 2009). "Beginnings of New Zealand's dairy industry". Te Ara: The Encyclopedia of New Zealand. Retrieved 14 August 2012. 
  2. ^ http://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/cgi-bin/paperspast?a=d&cl=search&d=CHP18810425.2.17&srpos=4&e=20-04-1881-20-05-1881--10--1-byDA---0bowron--
  3. ^ http://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/cgi-bin/paperspast?a=d&cl=search&d=CHP18821030.2.23&srpos=5&e=20-10-1882-20-11-1882--10--1-byDA---0bowron--
  4. ^ http://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/cgi-bin/paperspast?a=d&cl=search&d=WDT18830720.2.8&srpos=60&e=01-06-1883-31-08-1883--10--51-byDA---0bowron--
  5. ^ http://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/cgi-bin/paperspast?a=d&cl=search&d=CHP18901206.2.24&srpos=2&e=01-12-1890-31-12-1890--10--1-byDA---0bowron--
  6. ^ Manufacture of Cheese, Butter and Bacon in New Zealand, 1883 Observations on the Manufacture of Cheese, Butter and Bacon in New Zealand, 1883 Cheese, Butter and Bacon in New Zealand, 1883
  7. ^ a b Stringleman, Hugh; Scrimgeour, Frank (2009-03-01). Dairying and dairy products - Co-operatives and centralisation. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand. Ministry for Culture and Heritage / Te Manatu Taonga. ISBN 978-0-478-18451-8. Retrieved 2010-10-14. 
  8. ^ Philpott, H.G. (1937). A History of the New Zealand Dairy Industry: 1840-1935. Wellington: Government Printer.
  9. ^ Ward, A.H. (1975). A Command of Cooperatives. Wellington: The New Zealand Dairy Board.
  10. ^ a b "Situation and outlook for New Zealand agriculture and forestry (August 2007)". Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry. August 2008. Archived from the original on 23 November 2008. Retrieved 2009-04-02. 
  11. ^ a b c New Zealand Official Yearbook, 2008, p 358
  12. ^ New Zealand Official Yearbook, 2008, pp 360-61
  13. ^ New Zealand Official Yearbook, 2008, p 359
  14. ^ "TBfree New Zealand programme". 
  15. ^ "The use of 1080 for pest control – 3.1 Possums as reservoirs of bovine tuberculosis". 2011. 
  16. ^ "Future freedom from bovine TB, Graham Nugent (Landcare Research)". 2011. 
  17. ^ "Dr Paul Livingstone letter to the editor". Gisborne Herald. 26 May 2011. 
  18. ^ Leaman, Aaron; Neems, Jeff (2009-08-29). "Acting 'too late' costs farmers $90k". Waikato Times. Fairfax Media Ltd. Retrieved 2010-05-31. 
  19. ^ "Water Accord Progress Report Summary" (PDF). Dairy NZ. Retrieved 14 February 2016. 
  20. ^ "Milk price inquiry to continue". Fairfax. 9 February 2012. Retrieved 12 February 2012. 

Further reading[edit]

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