Story: Farm mechanisation

Page 3. Steam, wind, water and oil

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Steam power

Portable steam engines were imported in the 1860s to power stationary threshing mills and winnowing machines (which were combined into one machine from about 1864).

Traction engines – wheeled steam engines – were imported from 1880. They mainly ran threshers, but some drove other machines such as chaff cutters. From the late 19th century, they were used to plough tussockland, but little cultivated land was ploughed that way. They hauled bales of wool and sacks of grain, and sometimes stock was transported in trucks pulled by traction engines.

Full steam ahead

The Tokomaru Steam Engine Museum opened in 1970, at a time when much of New Zealand’s old industrial machinery was being used for scrap metal. It now has the biggest collection of working steam engines in New Zealand, including stationary and traction engines used for farming work.

In 1888 steam-powered shearing machines appeared in New Zealand. They were used mostly on large farms, where the investment could be economically justified. By the 1890s there were also some steam-driven milking machines.

In 1919 there were 1,280 portable or traction steam engines and 728 stationary steam engines on New Zealand farms. By 1930 tractors were becoming more common and the number of traction or portable steam engines had dropped to 817. Gradually traction engines became obsolete.

Wind power

Windmills were often used to pump stock drinking water from bores – a local invention, the Hayes farm windmill, was widely used after 1912. In the 2000s, wind is used to generate electricity on a few remote farms not served by the national grid, but is never the only source of power.

Water power

Direct water power (as opposed to water-driven turbines that generate electricity) ran some farm machinery in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It was popular in areas such as Taranaki where there were swift-flowing streams. At least one sizeable set of shearing machines, a threshing machine, some milking machines, and cream separators were powered by water.

Oil-fuelled engines

Small internal combustion engines – fuelled by oil, kerosene or petrol – were used before the First World War, but became more widespread after it. They drove machines for tasks such as chaff cutting, sawing and pumping water. Many were imported by agricultural machinery firm Andrews & Beaven.

The advent of shearing equipment driven by oil-fuelled engines enabled farmers with smaller flocks to adopt mechanised shearing. From the early 1900s milking machines and cream separators were powered by small internal combustion engines. The Australian-made Lawrence-Kennedy milking machine, imported from 1903, was the first to become widespread. New Zealanders made improvements to milking machines, but their full labour-saving potential was not realised until the herringbone milking shed, which allowed more cows to be milked at one time, was developed in the 1950s.

Orchardists began using motor-driven spraying plants shortly after the First World War. After the Second World War, engine-powered ‘spray-dipping’ of sheep to kill external parasites gained widespread acceptance. Chainsaws with internal combustion engines became widespread from the 1950s. Oil-fuelled engines were still extensively used to run portable farm machinery in the early 2000s.

How to cite this page:

James Watson, 'Farm mechanisation - Steam, wind, water and oil', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 14 July 2024)

Story by James Watson, published 24 Nov 2008