The first cows brought to New Zealand were Shorthorns, in 1814. They provided milk as well as meat, and were also used for hauling loads. They were milked in a paddock, usually by women and children. Butter was made in a hand churn. Most milk, butter and cheese was eaten by the family, or taken to the local store and swapped for supplies or tools.
Milk was separated into skim milk and cream, and was made into butter, cheese and other products.
The first milk-processing factories opened in the 1880s, but not all farmers were quick to use them. Once roads and railways improved, and ships could carry refrigerated milk, the dairy industry began to grow – in 1920 there were 600 factories.
Factories became centralised and the smaller ones had to close. By 2001 the largest dairy company was Fonterra, a co-operative company owned by 11,000 farmers, which supplied 95% of New Zealand’s milk.
The first milking machines were used in 1893. They used cups attached to the cow’s udder, and the milk was collected into buckets. Later, machines were electric and the milk flowed along pipes to a cream separator. Milking by machine was clean and efficient – more cows could be milked, so herds got bigger.
Early dairy sheds often had dirty, rough floors made of earth or stone. Once the Department of Agriculture began to make inspections, hygiene improved. Concrete floors had channels to drain wastes. Better shed design, including pits for milkers to work in and platforms for cows to stand on, made milking easier and faster.
Most of New Zealand’s dairy cows are Holstein-Friesians, Jersey cows, or Ayrshires. Holstein-Friesians and Jerseys were crossbred to create cows that are popular because they are medium-sized, fertile and sturdy, and produce good milk that is high in fat and protein.
Herd testing is used to test the fat content of milk. The cows with the fattiest milk are then selected for breeding.
New Zealand now produces more than 100 types of dairy products, including:
- whole milk
- milk powder
In the early 2000s dairy products were New Zealand’s leading export earner, and were sold to 140 countries.