Prices for fine Merino wool fell through the 1870s and until the turn of the 20th century. This was in part due to new wool processing technology overseas. The new worsted process made a flatter, smoother and stronger woollen cloth. However, the machinery of the time could only handle longer and stronger wool than that grown by Merinos.
Breeding the Corriedale
In the 19th century authorities on sheep claimed it was impossible to establish a new breed of sheep by cross-breeding. Many experts thought that it was impossible to breed for both wool and meat together, and that you could only achieve one at the expense of the other. However, in breeding the Corriedale, local sheep breeders like James Little proved them wrong.
Sheep breeders in the South Island responded by crossing British long-woolled breeds with Merino ewes to produce the Corriedale. There was a shift away from the Merino on all but the hardest hill country of the South Island.
By the early 1870s South Island grasslands were stocked to full capacity. The only commercial outlet for surplus sheep was to boil them down into tallow. Some breeders found Merino sheep unprofitable for this and turned to cross-breeding to develop bigger sheep that would bring greater profits.
Tallow is animal fat, which, in a pure state, is white, odourless and tasteless. Before the mid-20th century it was widely used for making soap and candles. It was also used as a lubricant before petroleum oil became readily available.
The wheat bonanza
A trial shipment of wheat and flour from South Canterbury to Britain in 1867 proved that there was a market for the produce. The boom really began when the railway was extended through Canterbury to link with the port of Lyttelton, overcoming the logistical problems of transporting large quantities of grain. In the early years of the 1880s grain grown on the newly ploughed grasslands of the South Island produced over 20% of the country’s export income.
The wheat bonanza caused a major transformation of the plains and downlands of Canterbury, Otago and Southland. These native tussocklands had reached their productive limit by the early 1870s, and they were sown with introduced grasses and legumes, usually ryegrass, cocksfoot, timothy, and red and white clover.
The usual rotation was to plough the native tussock and sow turnips, which would be eaten by sheep. The land was then sown in successive crops of wheat (oats were more successful in the colder parts of Otago and Southland) until the yields declined, due to decreased soil fertility. Turnips were planted again as a restorative crop before the land was sown in pasture. This rotation was the basis of the mixed-farming system of sheep production and cropping that persisted into the 1980s in parts of the South Island.