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Farm buildings

by  Robert Peden

Buildings on New Zealand farms range from the grand homesteads and huge brick shearing sheds of large sheep stations, to simple corrugated iron mustering huts, where men slept on bunks made from wooden poles and sacking.

Uses and materials

Functional buildings

Farm buildings are designed to be functional – so different types of farms have different buildings. On a sheep farm the most important building is the shearing shed; on a dairy farm it’s the milking shed. On a cropping farm the implement shed and grain silos dominate – on a horticultural unit, the packing shed does.

As farming practices have changed over the years, the design of farm buildings has also changed.

Brick by brick

The Deans family of Homebush Station in Canterbury set up commercial brickworks at Glentunnel in 1870. The station’s large shearing shed, stables, seed-cleaning barn and free-standing water tower were all built of brick in the 1870s.

Building materials

Early farm buildings were made from a variety of different materials, often depending on what was at hand. Timber was widely used, but where it was scarce, farm buildings were usually built from local stone, cob (a mixture of mud and straw), concrete and – in some places – bricks made on the site. From the 1860s, galvanised corrugated iron was imported as a building material. Initially it was used for roofing, but soon external walls were also clad with corrugated iron.

Most modern farm buildings, including woolsheds, implement sheds, haybarns and milking sheds, have a steel or wooden frame, with the roof and walls clad with corrugated iron.


These days the terms shearing shed and woolshed are used interchangeably, but they were originally quite different. In the earliest days of sheep farming in New Zealand, the animals were shorn outside on boards and tarpaulins, and the wool was baled up and stored in sheds – hence the term woolshed. As their flocks grew, pastoralists soon copied their Australian counterparts and built shearing sheds. The basic layout of shearing sheds, which has persisted into the 2000s, had been developed by the mid-1860s.

Components of a woolshed

Shearing sheds have four separate functional spaces: a slatted area for holding sheep; the shearing board; the wool room; and a storage area for wool bales.

Area for holding sheep

Sheep are held under cover overnight before they are shorn, to stop them getting wet from rain or heavy frost. Shearers will not shear wet sheep, because it is more difficult, and wet wool heats up when baled and can cause fires.

The sheep are fasted for half a day before being ‘shedded up’ for the night. The floor has slatted grating to stop the wool being stained by urine or faeces. The shed normally has several large holding pens that lead into smaller pens, and finally to the catching pens next to the shearing board.

The shearing board

The board takes its name from the early days when sheep were shorn outside on boards. Each shearer has a ‘stand’ – their working place on the board. Shearers enter the catching pen through swing doors and select the next sheep for shearing. They tip it up and drag it onto the board. Once it is shorn the animal is ejected through a porthole to the counting-out pen. Each shearer has a separate pen for their shorn sheep, so the farmer can assess their work and count the number of animals shorn.

Wool room

The wool room – usually not a separate room, but an area of the shed – is next to the shearing board. As the shearer shoves the shorn sheep out the porthole, a rousie (wool handler) picks up the fleece and throws it onto a wool table for sorting.

Bale storage

The presser works behind the bins where the wool is held after being sorted and classed, using a hydraulic or mechanical press to compress fleeces into wool bales weighing up to 200 kilograms. Once pressed, the bales are stacked. They are later loaded onto trucks and carted to a commercial woolstore.

Tradesman’s entrance

Morven Hills Station in Central Otago had over 100,000 sheep by the early 1870s. When ‘Big Jock’ McLean built the huge 34-stand woolshed in 1873 he had two doors put in – one for the men and one for him. They were only feet apart, but the story goes that if a man entered through the boss’s door, he was sacked on the spot.

Modern woolsheds

Raised boards

Although modern woolsheds have the same basic working areas as traditional sheds, some features have changed over time. The most marked change inside the shed is the raised shearing board. From a raised board, the shorn sheep are put down chutes near each catching-pen door, which lead to count-out pens under the shed.

A raised board is easier for wool handlers, as they do not have to bend down to pick up the fleeces, and the shearers and wool handlers are less likely to get in each other’s way.

U-shaped boards

A variation of the raised board is the U-shaped board. This system places each shearer about the same distance from the wool table, reducing the distance that the wool handlers have to move to collect each fleece.

Taking a stand

Shearing sheds are described by their number of stands – the number of shearers that the board can hold. Most modern sheds have three or four stands, while larger farms with more than 10,000 sheep might have six-stand sheds. On the big stations in the 19th century, 20-stand sheds were common. The Teviotdale shed in Central Otago had 40 stands, and nearby Moa Flat had 50.

Woolshed and covered yard complex

Since the 1950s woolsheds have commonly been built in conjunction with covered sheep yards. Covered yards allow the farmer to work in the shade and out of the rain, and at shearing time they can hold sheep under cover overnight and avoid any risk of them getting wet from rain. Wet sheep will not be shorn. Some covered yards can also hold machinery and implements when not being used for sheep.

Milking sheds

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.

Early developments

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.

Machine milking

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.

Rotary milking

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.

Farm housing

The homestead

The farmer’s home is usually near the rest of the farm buildings, but far enough from the sheep yards or cowshed to avoid the noise, dust and smell.

On large properties the main house is known as the homestead; on small family farms it is often just called the farmhouse. At the back door there is usually a verandah or porch to hang wet-weather gear to dry, and a woodshed nearby. In the past there was usually also a large vegetable garden and a fowl house, often tended by wives. However, women now increasingly work away from the farm, and no longer have time to maintain these.

At the farm gate there may be a large mailbox. Some are big enough to hold several bags of seed or other bulky items that a passing stock agent or transport firm might drop off. The mailbag is hung here for the rural postie to pick up.

There might also be one or more houses for married staff such as sharemilkers, and other permanent staff.

Home, sweet home

In the 19th century, the standard of accommodation for working men varied enormously. Some station owners provided workers with clean, comfortable quarters which had piped water, and good mattresses and pillows. Others housed shearers in huts that were used at other times for storage or as animal shelters, with a nearby creek providing the only water for washing and drinking.

Men’s and shearers’ quarters

Bigger properties that employed a lot of permanent and seasonal labour needed men’s quarters and a cookshop. Often the quarters were a line of bunkrooms opening onto a long verandah, where boots and coats could be hung to dry. The cookshop, a combined kitchen and dining room, was at one end of the building. In the early 2000s, few places employed large numbers of staff. Some farms had a hut or small house, often called the whare, which could house one or two workers. They either cooked for themselves, or ate at the homestead with the family.

Remote properties need accommodation for shearers. In the past, some stations expected shearers to share the men’s quarters, and others had separate shearers’ quarters – often with a layout similar to the men’s quarters.

Mustering huts

Most big stations needed mustering huts at various sites for men working away from the homestead. These were very basic – usually made of corrugated iron, with a corrugated-iron chimney at one end for the open fire. The old ones had dirt floors, and the bunks were sacks stretched across poles cut from nearby bush. When a gang of musterers were in residence there was very little room to move about.

Newer huts have concrete floors and bunks with mattresses.

Early station buildings


Barns are traditional farm buildings in Europe, Britain and North America, built to store grain and to house the threshing floor – where the grain was beaten out of the crop using a flail.

Barns are generally not common in New Zealand, although there are a few examples on early farms. In New Zealand, cropping was done on a large scale, and the crop was stored in stacks, not barns, before threshing. Also, grain cropping developed in New Zealand around the time that mechanical threshing machines were introduced, so the old threshing floor became obsolete. Cropping has become increasingly mechanised, and in the early 2000s grain was handled in bulk rather than in bags, and was stored in steel or corrugated-iron silos.

Hay barns

Before mechanisation hay was often stored in the lofts of traditional barns. Large quantities were kept in stacks, thatched to prevent weather damage. With the introduction of the mechanical baler, free-standing barns were built to store hay bales.

Some hay barns are closed in on three sides, and some are simply a corrugated iron roof on poles to keep off the rain. Since the 1980s, big round hay bales have replaced the original small square bales. This has reduced the need for hay barns, as bales can be stored outside in dry areas, or wrapped in plastic to keep them dry in higher-rainfall regions.


Stables were another traditional European farm building, built to house, feed, groom and harness working horses. Stables in New Zealand commonly consisted of a row of stalls, and behind them a cobbled walkway that ran the length of the building and led to the outside yard. At one end there was a tack room for the harness. There was also a room, and sometimes a loft, to store chaff for horse feed and straw for bedding. When machines replaced working horses, stables were often converted into machinery and implement sheds.

The smithy

Many large farms and stations had a blacksmith shop where a smith prepared horseshoes, made hinges and gate catches, and repaired iron tools. The smithy was usually a simple corrugated-iron building, closed in on three sides. Its central feature was the forge, where the smith heated the iron. The modern equivalent is the workshop.

The futtah

Large properties often had a futtah or wattie – a store shed, built on stilts to prevent rats from destroying the supplies. Stores such as tea, salt, sugar, flour and tobacco often only came in once or twice a year, so it was vital that they were protected. The concept, and the name futtah, was adopted from Māori, who built whata (platforms) to protect their food supplies from rats.

Modern buildings

Implement sheds

Modern implement sheds house tractors, motorbikes, trucks and other machinery. They are long buildings, usually closed in on three sides, consisting of a series of bays.

Sometimes the last bay is closed in completely, and has a raised floor and an external ramp, the height of a truck deck. This bay is used to store chemicals, bags of seed and fertiliser, and other items that need to be locked away or kept out of the weather.

Often one bay is used as a workshop. It usually has a concrete floor and a wide doorway, and is used to store the farmer’s tools, including welding equipment, drill presses and electric saws for engineering and carpentry jobs.

Killing shed

Modern regulations demand that killing stock on farms must be done in dog-proof facilities to prevent the spread of hydatids and other diseases. Modern killing sheds are often round concrete tanks, with a concrete floor sloping towards a drain that leads to a covered sump. They have small gauze-covered windows in the wall and door to allow air to flow through.

Fertiliser bin

Some hill-country farms have their own airstrip for topdressing aircraft, often with a bin at the strip to hold superphosphate fertiliser. This is a large low-set concrete bunker, with a corrugated-iron cover set on railway irons so it can slide back to allow access to the concrete pad for loading and unloading fertiliser.

Wintering pads

On dairy farms in wet regions, cows increasingly spend the winter on concrete or shingled wintering pads, feeding on silage and hay in troughs. In the 2000s, it has become common to have a roof over the pad, and sometimes to close in the side facing the prevailing wind. Wintering pads save waterlogged pasture from being trampled, and prevent the cows getting foot problems from wet ground.

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Robert Peden, 'Farm buildings', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 24 June 2024)

Story by Robert Peden, published 24 November 2008