While the basic layout of shearing sheds has changed little since the 1860s, the design of milking sheds has been completely transformed, due to technological innovation and the vastly increased size of dairy herds. In the 1860s a herd might have consisted of a dozen cows; now there are herds of over 5,000.
The earliest milking sheds were simple covered sheds where the farmer and family hand-milked the cows. The milk was collected in buckets and processed in the farm kitchen. As herds got bigger, and government inspectors encouraged better hygiene, the shed floor and the holding yard were concreted. Water was piped in for washing the cows’ udders and cleaning the workplace. Sheds often had a wood-fired copper boiler to heat water for cleaning and sterilising.
Milking machines were first introduced in the mid-1890s, and by 1920, about half of the country’s cows were machine milked. This required more planning in the design of milking sheds. A dairy or vat-room was added for the milk vat and the separator that separated the cream from the skim milk. Next door was the engine room, with the motor that drove the milking machines.
Machines made milking faster, which encouraged the next development in shed design. In the old system each cow had to back out of the bail (milking stall) after it was milked, and then had to be kept separate from the cows waiting their turn. With the walk-through shed, cows were let out the front of the bail after milking, and could make their own way back to the paddock, so there was a steady flow of cows through the shed.
The herringbone shed
In 1952 Ron Sharp, a Waikato dairy farmer, developed the herringbone shed design, which transformed the milking process. In Sharp’s system the cows line up on either side of a central pit where the operator can put on and take off the milking cups without having to bend down. In the old walk-through sheds each cow was milked at its own speed. In herringbone sheds the cows enter, are milked and leave in batches. By the early 1970s most new sheds followed the herringbone design, and by 1979 this type accounted for 60% of all milking sheds.
Big, bigger, biggest
The first rotary platform was built to take 14 cows, but as the technology improved their size increased. Platforms were designed to take 22 cows, then 36. When they reached 60, farmers thought they couldn’t get any bigger – but in the early 2000s there are platforms that hold 100 cows.
Herringbone sheds made the milking process much faster, but some cows had difficulty adapting to the system. Merv Hicks, a dairy farmer from Taranaki, developed a rotary milking platform in 1969. Cows walk onto a revolving circular platform in a continuous flow, and are milked during a single rotation. At the end of the cycle a machine removes the cups and the cow backs off the platform. Cows are more settled in rotary milking sheds than in herringbone sheds, as each animal has its own space and there is less jostling – so the productivity can be higher.