Story: Farm mechanisation

Page 2. Machines powered by humans and animals

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Manual labour

The first farm tools and machines required human labour, but some had levers, screws or pulleys to increase their power. Manually operated machines are still used and introduced, despite the move to other forms of power. One example is the drench gun, which is powered by pulling a trigger. It appeared in 1936 and was still in use in the early 2000s.

Clearing and cultivating

Before Europeans arrived in New Zealand, Māori used the kō, a version of the foot plough, to dislodge weeds and loosen the soil before planting. They made adzes with stone blades to fell trees and clear land.

European traders and settlers brought metal spades, hoes and axes, which were essential to the development of European-style agriculture. Jacks and block-and-tackle, which are used for levering and lifting heavy loads such as tree trunks, were particularly handy in land clearance following European settlement.

Planting and tending crops

Crops were planted with a variety of human-powered seed-sowing machines. Orchardists used hand pump sprayers from the mid-19th century.

Harvesting and haymaking

Traditional haymaking tools included sickles, scythes, rakes and pitchforks. Bales were made in hay presses. Hinged flails were used in threshing (beating the grain from the chaff) wheat and other cereal crops.

Early chaff cutters – machines that chopped hay or straw for animal feed – were simple hand-powered guillotines. In 1868 local machinery firm Reid & Gray launched a rotary chaff cutter, which had a flywheel to make it more powerful.

Shearing and milking

Sheep shearers used blade shears, and the wool was packed by hand-operated screw or lever wool presses.

Butter was made in manually operated churns, mainly on farms. The first milking machines were powered by humans, as were machines that separated cream from milk.

Animal power

Bullocks and horses provided most of the animal power for early farm machinery. While slow, bullocks were extremely powerful and hardy. Horses cost more to buy, and had to be fed oats when heavily worked, but they could travel to work and perform tasks more quickly.


Using animals to pull ploughs made it easier to cultivate ground for sowing crops or pasture. The first European-style ploughing in New Zealand was done in Kerikeri in 1820, by missionary John Butler. His single-furrow swing plough was drawn by bullocks. Wheeled ploughs, which were easier to control, were introduced later. Ploughs helped Māori agriculture flourish in the 1840s and 1850s.

As more draught horses were introduced, farmers were able to use heavier multi-furrow ploughs. These were particularly popular in the extensive grain-growing areas of the South Island, which were established from the 1860s. Specialist ploughs were developed for hillside and drainage work.

Other horse-drawn machines

A wide range of harrows, grubbers and cultivators – to further break down the soil after ploughing – were also drawn by horses.

Traditionally, seed was sown by hand. A horse-drawn seed drill was imported into Lyttelton as early as 1853. By the mid-19th century, farmers could buy a range of horse-drawn mowers, rakes, tedders, sweeps and grabs to cut, turn, collect up and lift hay onto stacks.

Wearisome work

Before the advent of reaping machines, cutting grain was skilled and difficult work. In the late 1850s an observer said ‘wheat had to be reaped with the hook or sickle in a handful at a time and laid in a bank as straight as if it was a piece of millinery … A quarter of an acre was a big day’s work and a wearisome one and only an expert could do it – half the amount was enough for beginners.’ 1

Once, all grain was cut by scythe or sickle, and bound into sheaves by hand. In 1856 a horse-drawn reaper – Bell’s Improved Reaper – was imported to Canterbury. It reduced the manual labour, but sheaves still needed to be tied by hand. Horse-drawn reaper-binders appeared in New Zealand about 1875. They initially tied sheaves with wire, but twine binders appeared a few years later.

Stationary machines

Stationary machines, such as threshers, chaff cutters, winnowers (which separated threshed grain from chaff), and hay balers, could also be powered by horse gears (whims). The horses walked around a capstan and their power was transferred to gears that turned a shaft connected to the machine.

Animal-driven threshing machines were imported as early as 1847. Some were powered by oxen, but horses were generally required to provide the necessary speed.

  1. Quoted in John E. Martin, The forgotten worker: the rural wage earner in nineteenth century New Zealand. Wellington: Allen & Unwin/Trade Union History Project, p. 116. › Back
How to cite this page:

James Watson, 'Farm mechanisation - Machines powered by humans and animals', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 14 July 2024)

Story by James Watson, published 24 Nov 2008