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Farm mechanisation

by  James Watson

From ploughs pulled by bullock teams to air-conditioned tractors; from blade shears to electric shearing machines – agricultural machinery has helped make farm work easier and faster. With more efficient machines, farms have become larger and more productive, and need fewer workers.

Reasons for mechanisation

Farmers have long used many kinds of machines to help grow and harvest produce from plants and animals, because they make the work easier or more efficient. In New Zealand there were a number of reasons for farm mechanisation.

British experience

During the 19th century, agricultural machinery powered by animals or, increasingly, steam was widely used in the UK. When Europeans came to New Zealand, they often brought farming machines with them, or imported machines once they had arrived.

Some settlers, such as James Gray, a Scot, had skills in manufacturing implements and links to overseas manufacturers. He later founded agricultural machinery firm Reid & Gray.

Willingness to invest

Settler farmers with capital invested in machinery and draught animals, often borrowing money to do this, because they wanted their farms to be profitable, rather than just self-sufficient.

Labour shortages

In the early period of European settlement scarcity of labour encouraged the use of machines to help farmers in their work. Many settlers were able to acquire and farm their own land, instead of being employees. Māori had sufficient resources to support themselves, without having to work for settlers.

The availability of workers fluctuated in later years, but it remained an issue. Town employment was often more attractive and, from the 1890s, legislation to protect workers increased labour costs.

Family changes

The trend towards smaller families from the late 19th century meant there was less unpaid farm labour available. From 1877 all children had to attend school, even during busy periods on the farm. Also, it was a mark of status if the farmer’s wife didn’t have to work on the farm.

Wartime influences

Wartime labour shortages encouraged farmers to buy labour-saving devices. Sales of milking machines increased during the First World War; and during the Second World War the government supported the import of tractors from the United States.

Military vehicles and equipment were later converted to peacetime farming uses. For example, De Havilland Tiger Moth aircraft were used for agricultural aviation.

Cost and efficiency

Some farmers – put off by the cost of machinery and fuel, and reluctant to change established practices – continued using outdated technology for some time. But, as the prices of petrol, electricity and the equipment itself decreased, farm machinery became more common.

Electric and motor machines were more efficient than human- or animal-powered machines, and allowed mass production and economies of scale.

Hands on

Some conditions were unsuitable for particular machinery. Cocksfoot grass was threshed by hand on the steep hills of Banks Peninsula long after steam-driven threshing mills had spread throughout the Canterbury Plains.


Because New Zealand weather can change rapidly, speed is an important consideration in farm work. Weather is particularly changeable during the seasons when crops are sown and harvested. Horses pulling ploughs could not work continuously to take advantage of breaks in the weather, but tractors and motorised harvesting machinery could. The rapid adoption of tractors in Canterbury in the early 1920s followed a particularly wet spring.

Agricultural advice

Many settler farmers read local and overseas books, journals and newspaper articles that gave advice on agricultural advances. The Journal of Agriculture, produced by the Department of Agriculture, was very influential. Its articles included information from the United States, where farmers focused on saving labour. Most farm machinery of potential use in New Zealand was invented and manufactured in the US.

Farmers were introduced to new machinery at agricultural and pastoral shows, field days, and demonstrations organised by commercial firms, agricultural colleges and the Department of Agriculture.


Manufacturers’ advertisements encouraged farmers to buy the latest machine, implying that if they didn’t they would be behind the times. Often advertisements claimed that the machinery made farming a ‘one-man operation’. As most New Zealand farmers did farm work themselves, this was a strong selling point, especially as the farmer grew older.

Machines powered by humans and animals

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

Steam, wind, water and oil

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.


Farming was revolutionised by vehicles powered by internal combustion engines, because of their speed and flexibility.

Starting up

Some farmers were reluctant to replace their horses with tractors because early tractors were notoriously difficult to start. The engine oil often needed warming before hand cranking the tractor. Some farmers resorted to lighting a fire under the sump or using a blowtorch to warm the engine before starting it up.


Early uses

The first tractors – an Ivel and a Kinnard Haines – were imported in 1904. These early tractors were large, heavy machines. By 1919 there were only 136 tractors on New Zealand farms. Lighter, more manoeuvrable machines were introduced from the 1920s, and became more widely used for towing machines to cultivate land, plant seeds, mow and reap. Some drove small stationary threshing machines, known as tin mills. By 1931 there were 5,023 tractors, mostly on arable (crop-growing) farms.

Crawler tractors

Crawler tractors were used on pastoral farms from the 1920s. They had tracks rather than wheels, and so could be used on wet ground and hill country, to clear scrub and make drains. The first tractors ran on kerosene and petrol, but in the early 1930s diesel engines came into use.

Wheeled tractors

Wheeled tractors became common in pastoral farming after faster models with rubber tyres became available in the late 1930s. They allowed farmers to transport loads like stock fodder around the farm more quickly, and began to replace horses.

From 1948 large numbers of tractors that used the Ferguson system – a hydraulic three-point connection that enabled machinery to be towed more easily – were imported.

By 1960, 78,415 tractors were in use on New Zealand farms. Numbers reached a peak of 96,666 in 1971, and have since declined. However, tractors remained an important piece of farm equipment in the early 2000s. The latest models are high-powered, and take comfort into consideration, with features such as air-conditioned cabs and compact disc players.


Header harvesters, which appeared in 1927, made it possible to harvest and thresh grain in one pass. In 1932 self-propelled combine harvesters appeared, doing away with the need for a tractor. Combine harvesters became increasingly dominant in grain-growing areas after the Second World War.

Tractor-towed hay balers were first imported during the Second World War. In 1950 the International Harvester Company brought in balers operated by the tractor’s power take-off (a shaft protruding from the back of the tractor that was powered by the tractor engine). From the 1980s bale wrappers – machines that make large round bales and cover them with plastic – reduced the need for hay sheds. By the early 2000s there were also bale feeders, towed behind a tractor to unwrap and distribute bales of stock feed.

Silage making was made easier after the Second World War by the introduction of the buckrake – a hydraulically operated sweep mounted behind the tractor, which collected hay as the tractor reversed. The weight of the tractor was used to compress silage in the pit or stack. Forage harvesters, which cut, chopped and blew pasture into a trailer, were also used in making silage.


In the 1920s and 1930s, improved roads and the introduction of milk trucks made the collection of milk and cream faster and easier, widening the catchment area of dairy factories. The number of factories declined, but the production of those remaining increased rapidly. From 1950 milk tankers took over from can collection, again bringing the closure of many small local dairy factories.

After stock trucks were introduced, there was no longer a need to drove animals over longer distances, or through settled areas. Trucks and tractors were widely used for spreading lime and other fertiliser on farms.


Before the 1940s fertiliser could only be spread on hill country using human or horse power. There were experiments in aerial topdressing after the Second World War, and it became common on hill country from around 1950.

The use of aircraft – initially fixed-wing planes and then helicopters – sped up a variety of tasks, including sowing seed, spraying herbicide, dropping poisoned bait and lifting in fencing materials. As vineyards developed, helicopters were used to force warmer air down onto the vines on frosty nights.

Getting around the farm

Four-wheel-drive vehicles – notably the Land Rover, but also war-surplus jeeps, and even bren gun carriers – were used to access steep country. In the 1970s farm motorbikes made travel on the farm faster, and four-wheel ‘quad bikes’ became another way to transport material and workers.

Machines powered by electricity

Uptake of electricity

From the early 20th century some larger isolated farm stations generated power from their own small hydroelectric plants. The first electricity on many smaller farms also came from hydroelectric generators.

Between the world wars, the extension of power lines to farms progressed. Tasks such as pumping water for stock, irrigation, drainage and spraying, became increasingly dependent on electricity. From only 456 electric motors in use on farms in 1921, the number soared to 61,826 in 1941, and 145,071 in 1958.

Electric tractor

To increase demand for electricity, in the 1930s Mr H. Kemp, engineer for the Ashburton Electric Power Board, designed a tractor with an electric motor. Power came from high-tension mains via a transformer mounted on a truck, linked to the tractor by a feeder cable. Eight such tractors were made, but they could not compete with models powered by cheap oil fuels.


Electric refrigeration for milk tanks was advertised as early as 1928. Gradually, electric milking and separating machines replaced those run by internal combustion engines. Electric light made early morning milking more comfortable, and electric water heating meant farmers no longer needed to light fires to boil water for cleaning and sterilising.

The electric rotary platform was developed by Merv Hicks of Eltham in 1969, to make milking more efficient. Cows stand on a slowly rotating platform, and only a small number of operators are needed to milk them. Once milked, the cows back off the platform and make their own way back to pasture.

Fruit growing

Stationary spray systems with electric pumps were in use in orchards by the 1930s. Electric refrigeration was advertised for fruit stores after the Second World War, and an electric conveyor belt was developed for fruit sorting by 1949. By the mid-1980s electric turbines were used in vineyards to drive warm air downwards on frosty nights.

Stock management

The electric fence appeared around 1937 and became widely used, mainly in dairying. It is particularly helpful for break feeding – confining stock to one part of a pasture, and allowing the animals an additional area each day, to ensure no pasture is wasted. As mains supply increasingly reached into sheep-farming areas, electricity was used to power shearing machines.


Spray irrigation was being used on pasture from about 1947. From the mid-1980s large electrically powered spray irrigators were being used on pasture in flat, dry areas of the South Island.

Electronic technology

In the late 20th century a new wave of mechanisation began with the introduction of electronic technology. An early application was using lasers for determining levels when installing drains and earthworks in border dyke irrigation. From the late 1980s electronic machines were used for weighing stock and detecting pregnancy. Computerised spray irrigation allowed precise amounts of water to be delivered to different areas under a variety of conditions. Global positioning technology has made the delivery of fertiliser and pesticides, and the preparation of farm maps, more accurate.

Electronic record-keeping and computer databases became significant in planning and stock breeding. Computers transformed rural communications, though speed on the internet often suffered from the limitations of rural telephone lines.

Consequences of farm mechanisation

Fewer employees

The greatest impact of mechanisation has been an enormous increase in productivity per farm worker – overall production and production per hectare has grown considerably, but the total number of hours worked has fallen. There has been a large drop in the number of farmers and farm workers, and less work is now done by farmers’ families. The long-term pattern has been to replace expenditure on labour with investment in machinery.

Man versus machine

One of the effects of mechanisation was to reduce the number of farm jobs available. When this coincided with an economic downturn, such as when haymaking machinery was introduced during the economic depression of the 1880s, the impact on workers was particularly severe.

Bigger farms

There has also been a growth in farm size, as labour-saving machines have allowed ‘one-man’ farms to expand. In 1928 most dairy farms were either 55 acres (22 hectares) carrying 20–25 cows, or 100 acres (40 hectares) carrying 39–45 cows. By 2006 the average dairy herd size in New Zealand was 322. In Canterbury it was 648 – the result of large arable farms being converted to dairying.

Machines tend to operate more efficiently on larger farms, and bigger farms are better able to bear the cost of buying and running them.

Increased production

Mechanisation has increased farm production significantly. For example, machines made large-scale land clearance and drainage projects possible, aerial topdressing made steep country productive for the first time, and electric fences allowed farmers to use pasture more efficiently.

Locally manufactured machinery

Farm machinery manufacturing has been a significant industry in New Zealand from the mid-19th century. Early firms – such as P. & D. Duncan, Reid & Gray, and Andrews & Beaven – produced ploughs, harrows, threshing machines, chaff cutters, and seed cleaners.

Some New Zealand-made machines, notably Andrews & Beaven’s chaff cutters, were exported to Australia and further afield. The long-serving Fletcher topdressing aircraft were often assembled locally, and in the early 2000s Cresco aircraft were made at Pacific Aerospace Corporation at Rukuhia, near Hamilton.

Reliance on imports

Despite some local manufacturing, mechanisation has tended to increase New Zealand farming’s dependence on imports. Farm machinery, particularly from the United States, featured strongly in import statistics from the mid-19th century, and local manufacturers generally used metal and parts from overseas. Feed for bullocks and horses was produced locally, as was coal for steam engines, but most oil-based fuel was imported.

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: James Watson, 'Farm mechanisation', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 18 September 2021)

Story by James Watson, published 24 Nov 2008