Story: Arable farming

Page 2. Ploughing and harvesting

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The colonial plough

Iron ploughs imported from Britain and America were an improvement on the earlier wooden ploughs, but they were not robust enough for local conditions.

Local engineering firms soon began to improve on the imported models. Anderson’s foundry made successful colonial ploughs, as did P. & D. Duncan in Christchurch, and Reid & Gray in Dunedin, who both made double-furrow ploughs that became widely used for breaking up tussock grasslands.

In the late 1870s three- and four-furrow ploughs were made, but they did not supplant the two-furrow plough until tractors replaced horse teams.

Long walks

Ploughmen walked their horses to the field in the morning and back again in the evening. During the day they walked behind their team at work. When using a double-furrow plough the ploughman would work about two acres a day, requiring walking about 20 miles (32 kilometres). Three-furrow ploughs made life much easier because they had a seat.

Harvesting technology

McCormick’s reaper won the gold medal at the Great Exhibition of 1851 in London, and revolutionised harvesting technology. Before that, crops were mown by hand using either a reaping hook or scythe. The sheaves were then hand tied, gathered and stacked.

In the 1850s reaping machines were imported into Christchurch from England and the US, and in the 1860s Reid & Gray made a reaping machine especially for local conditions.

The reaper-binder, which cuts the crop and ties the sheaves in one operation, was invented in the 1870s. In 1877 Reid & Gray developed a binder that tied sheaves with twine, which was superior to the imported wire binders.

Bringing in the sheaves

Even after the invention of the reaper-binder, harvesting was a back-breaking job. The machine cut the crop and tied it into sheaves, which were gathered into stooks. Five or six pairs of sheaves were stooked together with the heads upright so that the sap could drain from the stalks. Once dried, they were forked into horse-drawn wagons and taken to the stack. Stacks were built to withstand wind and keep out the rain; building them required considerable expertise.


After being tied, the sheaves were stacked until needed, and then threshed to remove the grain from the straw. Before 1860, when a mechanical threshing machine was invented, the job was done by hand using a tool called a flail.

In 1864 a group of farmers from Timaru imported a traction engine and combine harvester to thresh grain crops. The operator and his machinery travelled from district to district.

Header harvesters first arrived in New Zealand in 1924 and changed the old system completely. These harvesters cut the crop and threshed it in one pass. It left the straw in rows on the ground and took only the grain, with workers bagging it during the process.

In 1958 the first bulk header arrived in Canterbury. It stored the grain while it worked, and then transferred it to bulk trucks for transport to silos. By the end of the 1950s the process of cropping had been completely mechanised.

How to cite this page:

Sue Zydenbos, 'Arable farming - Ploughing and harvesting', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 22 July 2024)

Story by Sue Zydenbos, published 24 Nov 2008