The Role of Beef Cattle in New Zealand
When the rain forest of the North Island was felled and burnt, the hills were surface sown with the seed of English grasses and clovers. Pastures usually established well on the ash of the forest fires and the accumulated humus, but the early farmers were unable, in most cases, to provide sufficient stock to eat the rank grass and control the fern, manuka, and other woody weeds which soon appeared in many localities. At that stage of hill-country development, cattle of the right kind were unprocurable in numbers adequate to control the grass and weed growth and, mainly as a consequence of this shortage, large tracts of the newly brought-in hill country reverted to second growth. A cattle beast to every five or seven sheep was considered necessary wherever there was a real threat of second growth invading the pasture, but this stocking ratio was seldom attained. Nevertheless, a tradition was established in the use of cattle which remained their dominant and unique role in the pastoral economy of New Zealand. Thus beef cattle, employed as “animated mowing machines”, have been responsible largely for controlling the woody weeds of the unploughable hill country as well as for maintaining the excellent quality of many of the pastures of the flats.
Beef cattle, when grazed in conjunction with sheep, prevent the grass from becoming too rank and unpalatable for sheep. There is a belief that sheep thrive better when mature cattle are associated with them because they perchance eat, along with grass, the infective larvae of the internal parasites of sheep, which fail to develop in the digestive tract of adult cattle. Cattle also alter the botanical composition of the pasture sward so that the finer grasses and the clovers relished by sheep are likely to be more abundant. The grazing together of the two species of animals is therefore probably of greater value to the sheep than the cattle, but there is insufficient profit in beef cattle to make them an attractive undertaking on their own. High land values, the slow biological turnover of generations, and relatively low prices for beef are the prime reasons why beef cattle production as the major enterprise is undertaken on only 14 percent of the 90,290 classified farm holdings in New Zealand. The unfavourable monetary returns from beef production accounts for its lower rate of expansion in comparison with wool and lamb. Until there is a substantial improvement in the financial gains from beef production, cattle in New Zealand will remain secondary in importance to sheep.