The low rainfall, the “shortage of water”, were recognised as limiting factors during the first decade of settlement, but the initial phases of agricultural development sought to avoid these problems rather than confront them, first, by farming the plains under a system of extensive pastoralism and, later, by introducing a hardly less extensive system of cereal cultivation. In the 1850s, apart from a small area of mixed farming near Christchurch, the whole of the plains and much of the foothills and ranges were opened up under pastoral leases for grazing, a number of Australians experienced in working large sheep stations being attracted to the province. The grazing practices were extensive and, because of land speculation and burning of the tussock grasses, often destructive of the habitat, especially in the steeper country. Nevertheless, large fortunes were made and the squatters dominated the political life of the region until they were challenged by the smaller farmers in the 1880s, when refrigeration made intensive farming a possibility. Between 1858 and 1867 the total population increased from 8,967 to 38,333, and in the next decade it rose to 91,922 (1878). This decade witnessed the boom period and the creation of the railway network; the Lyttelton line was opened in 1867 and the link with Dunedin completed in 1878.
The deteriorating quality of the tussock pastures necessitated ploughing, and with the improved transport offered by the new railway system this became the important factor in the expansion of the bonanza wheat farms. By 1883, 4 million bushels of wheat were exported. Wheat farming proved to be a very profitable venture, the large landowners benefiting by mechanisation, which reduced their labour costs, and by the large scale of their operations. Utilising the untapped fertility of the virgin soils, they at first obtained high yields, but these were not sustained and production fell off in the marginal areas. The transitory features of the bonanza period ought not to obscure the fact that it constituted a critical period in the agricultural development of Canterbury. Apart from accustoming the farming community to mechanised farming, it brought that community face to face with the question of conducting arable farming under the particular environmental conditions of the region, and it made it quite clear that a sound system of arable farming could be obtained only on a scientific basis. Thus, in a sense, Hilgendorf's later work is directly related to the establishment at the time of Lincoln Agricultural College.
In the 1880s Canterbury farming entered a new phase of development associated with the introduction of refrigeration and the breaking up of larger estates. In a drive towards a more intensive type of farming the farmers could no longer avoid the problems posed by climate and soils and their increasing degree of success in dealing with these problems is reflected in a number of ways: by the reversal in the trend of wheat yields, by the changing character of the sheep flocks, and by the establishment of a system of mixed arable farming.
The soils of the plain are derived mostly from river deposits – gravels, sands and silt, and clays – which in places have been overlain by loess. In composition the soils range from rich loams to peats and thin droughty soils, and within any one district a range of soil types is to be expected. For the farmer the most critical factor is the moisture capacity of the various soils, for under relatively low-rainfall conditions (annual average rainfall, Christchurch, 26.3 in.; Timaru, 23.5 in.), high sunshine hours, and, especially, strong drying winds, and in a system of mixed arable farming, the maintenance of pasture and fodder production becomes a major difficulty.
With the establishment in the early 1880s of a London market for frozen meat, farming in Canterbury entered a more intensive phase. Leicester rams were used with Merino and half-bred ewes to produce the original Canterbury lamb. The extension of fencing permitted better feeding practices and the necessity of supplementary feeding was soon recognised. The land legislation of the 1890s was aimed at destroying the domination of the large landowners. By the beginning of the First World War the Government had acquired approximately 453,000 acres for subdivision in North Canterbury, in the Cheviot and Amuri counties, and in South Canterbury, to the south of Ashburton.
Though intensive, Canterbury farming could hardly be described as scientific until the inter-war period. The importance of lime was not recognised until the 1930s, the period when the value of subterranean clovers and improved strains of rye grass was first widely appreciated. In 1928 the Wheat Research Institute was established to continue the researches of Hilgendorf into improved wheat varieties and, with the establishment of the Winchmore Irrigation Station in 1946, another aspect of Canterbury farming was brought under scientific study. Not until the 1960s, however, were the tussock lands of the high country given their due, with the establishment of the Tussock Grasslands and Mountain Lands Institute. In 1911 the Canterbury Land District had 4.31 million sheep. By 1921 the figure was 4.49 million; by 1931, 5.41 million; by 1951, 5.70 million; and by 1960, 7.86 million. The impact of science and technology during the post-war period is evident from these figures.
The area where cropping is carried on extends from Culverden in the north towards Timaru in the south and reaches its greatest width in Ashburton County. Two principal types of farms are operated. The first is dependent upon the sale of fat lambs and wool for its income; and its cropping programme is directed towards the production of fodder, but some cash crops are grown. The second type draws its revenue mostly from the sale of cash crops. Dairy farming, with some cropping for fodder and specialised dairying, is concentrated in the vicinity of Christchurch, a feature borne out by the ratio of dairy cows in milk per hundred shorn sheep. The Christchurch Region is also the centre of market gardening, orchards, and small-fruit growing. In 1960, 211,915 acres were under cereals for threshing in the Canterbury Land District and 259,147 acres of land were devoted to the production of fodder-crops. In addition 102,507 acres were producing grass seed.