Story: Beef farming

Grazing its cattle on pasture year-round, New Zealand supplies about 8% of the world’s export beef trade – but beef farming has long been the poor cousin of the sheep and dairy industries.

Story by Robert Peden
Main image: Prize-winning steak and surviving cattle

Story summary

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Beef farming in New Zealand

In New Zealand:

  • most beef cattle are farmed with sheep on hill country
  • cattle are fed on grass, not grain
  • extra cattle from the dairy industry are also killed for meat.

Exporting beef

After refrigerated shipping was invented, beef was exported to Britain – but New Zealand farmers had to compete with large cattle farms in America.

Today, 80% of New Zealand beef is exported, and this makes up 8% of the world’s exported beef.


The first cattle were brought to New Zealand in 1814. From the 1840s, more arrived from Australia – mostly Durhams (now called Shorthorns). Cattle were able to survive on rough pasture and swampy areas, which did not suit sheep. They were also used to pull ploughs, carts and logs.

In the 1860s gold rushes, cattle were fattened and driven to the goldfields, to feed the miners.

Beef cattle breeds

The main breeds, all from Britain, were:

  • Shorthorns, which have been developed into milking and beef types
  • Anguses – black cattle from Scotland
  • Herefords, which are red and white, with white faces.

Breeding cattle

Cattle are bred to increase their size, growth rate and meat quality. Different breeds are mated together (cross-bred) to improve their quality.

Exotic cattle breeds

European breeds (called exotic breeds) grow faster and bigger than British cattle, and were brought to New Zealand from the 1960s. They are used mainly for cross-breeding. Exotic breeds include:

  • Charolais, from France
  • Simmentals – Swiss cattle bred for milk and meat
  • Limousins, a hardy breed from France.


Cattle for breeding are usually farmed in hilly areas, along with sheep. The calves are born in spring. They are weaned from their mother’s milk when seven or eight months old. The best female calves (heifers) are kept for breeding, and the others are sold to farmers who will fatten them for meat.

Producing meat

Cattle to be fattened and killed for meat are mostly farmed in lowland areas. These farms usually buy in calves from farms on hilly areas. Cattle from the dairy industry are also used for meat.

How to cite this page:

Robert Peden, 'Beef farming', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 26 July 2024)

Story by Robert Peden, published 24 November 2008