Story: Dairying and dairy products

Page 1. Beginnings of New Zealand’s dairy industry

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Since the early 1800s the dairy industry in New Zealand has gone from farmers keeping a few domestic cows on bush blocks to being a world leader.

First cows

The first dairy cows to arrive in New Zealand were Shorthorns, known at that time as Durhams. They were introduced in 1814 by missionary Samuel Marsden for mission stations in the Bay of Islands. The cows came from the New South Wales Crown herd, and were a gift from Governor Lachlan Macquarie. Shorthorns were useful draught animals, which gave good milk and provided excellent meat.

Early farms

Shorthorn herds were established by the early 1840s, and for a long time Shorthorns were New Zealand’s most popular cattle breed. Farmers mainly kept cows to provide milk, butter and other dairy products, and grazed them on pastures cut out of native bush. Initially, herds were small, but were larger near towns, where milk, butter and cheese could be sold.

Domestic milking and processing

All settlements had dairy cows, each family usually keeping one or two to provide its dairy needs. Women and children generally had the task of milking, which they did in a paddock. They restrained the animal with a leg rope or halter, and sat on a stool or upturned bucket. The milk was strained through fine mesh, then allowed to settle so the cream rose to the top. This was skimmed off with a ladle and made into butter in a small churn. Cheese was made by curdling whole milk with lactic acid or rennet from the lining of a calf’s stomach. Whey – the watery waste product – was usually fed to the pigs.

Better butter

Before refrigeration, butter sent from New Zealand to Britain or Australia invariably arrived in poor condition. However, butter sent to New Zealand from Ireland, and cheese from England, arrived in good condition, and was sold at a premium. Overseas butter was heavily salted, and was packed in salt, and was thought to be of the highest quality.

Dairy products

In the early days of New Zealand settlement, butter was the only dairy product with a marketable value – although it was often bartered rather than sold for cash. As late as the 1880s butter that was surplus to a family’s requirements was taken to the local store and swapped for food or farm tools. The storekeeper would then sell the butter for a profit.

Dairy products added protein and fat to the limited pioneer diet of bread, meat, some fish, and a few fruits and vegetables. Butter, cheese and yogurt stayed fresh and edible a lot longer than raw milk or cream.

How to cite this page:

Hugh Stringleman and Frank Scrimgeour, 'Dairying and dairy products - Beginnings of New Zealand’s dairy industry', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 23 July 2024)

Story by Hugh Stringleman and Frank Scrimgeour, published 24 Nov 2008