In 2007 New Zealand had more than 4.2 million dairy cows producing over 15 billion litres of milk.
The national dairy herd was made up of Holstein-Friesian (47%, although declining), Jersey (15%), Ayrshire (2%), and some minor breeds such as Guernsey, Brown Swiss and Meuse Rhine Issel.
Most dairy cows brought to New Zealand in the pioneering years were English Shorthorns, which were also beef-producing animals and could be used to haul carts and logs. But a number of other breeds took over in popularity and importance as the main milk producers, and there are now relatively few Shorthorns in New Zealand.
These black-and-white dairy cows have bloodlines from Friesland, a northern province of the Netherlands. Now known as the Holstein-Friesian, this breed is the most common milking cow in the world. It was first imported to the South Island by Canterbury farmer John Grigg in 1884, and to the North Island by Wairarapa farmers four years later. Larger numbers of Holstein-Friesians came in from the US in 1902–3. The breed association was formed in 1914.
Holstein-Friesians are large cows, and their milk has high concentrations of protein and lactose. In New Zealand, on a grass-only diet, they produce more than 4,000 litres of milk from when they calve in early spring to when they ‘dry off’ in autumn. In the US they can produce up to 10,000 litres in the same period when fed high-energy supplements.
The first Jersey cows
Jersey dairy cattle were first imported in 1862. During the expansion of the dairy industry from the 1880s, Jerseys were considered a good alternative to Holstein-Friesians because they gave more butterfat per litre of milk, and were smaller and easier to handle. They are slightly more efficient and profitable than Holstein-Friesians because more can be stocked per hectare of pasture. They were favoured in Taranaki, where farms were smaller. New Zealand has the world’s largest Jersey population – about 600,000.
Hybrid vigour is the term given to the extra productivity or performance that occurs when two breeds are crossed, compared with the average of the two purebreeds.
Many New Zealand dairy farmers want medium-sized, fertile, easy-calving cattle that will not suffer leg and foot problems when travelling from paddock to parlour. In the late 20th century Holstein-Friesians were bred with Jersey cows to produce a cow that has a dark-brown coat with white or black accents.
Hybrid vigour boosts its milk-solids production, conception and calving rates. In 2006 there were 1.2 million such cows (about 30% of the national dairy herd), and their numbers were increasing steadily.
The red-and-white Ayrshire breed originated in Scotland and came to New Zealand in 1848 with the first settlers to Otago. The breed society was formed in 1909, and Ayrshires or their crosses now number about 100,000. The breed performs well under all-grass, medium-intensity farming, with reliable calving, a strong constitution, good foraging abilities, strong legs and a well-shaped udder.
Holstein-Friesian, Jersey, Ayrshire and English Shorthorn breeders have their pedigree and production records kept by breed associations. These promote genetic imports and exports, conferences and training for young cattle handlers. They also provide judges at agricultural and pastoral shows.