First hens in New Zealand
In 1773, on his second voyage to New Zealand, James Cook gave hens to Māori in both the North and South islands. Missionaries in the Bay of Islands were the first recorded poultry farmers in 1814. Many early settlers had a few hens in the backyard to supply eggs. Chicken meat was a luxury, eaten perhaps only once or twice a year – often a non-laying hen or old rooster. Domestic poultry also included ducks, geese and turkeys, but chickens were by far the most popular and numerous.
In 1896 the New Zealand government appointed its first poultry expert. Soon after, several state poultry stations were set up to evaluate approved strains of poultry and farm and breed them. The emphasis at this time was mostly on egg production, although heavy breeds were recognised as being useful for both eggs and meat.
Early 20th century
At the beginning of the 20th century, chickens – often called chooks – were kept in coops and runs in the backyards of about half of New Zealand households. Poultry farmers used similar set-ups, or kept hens in fields in ‘mobile arks’, which could be moved when the ground became muddy. Some farmers kept hens indoors in a barn, with a litter floor and nest boxes for egg-laying. The intensive system, where birds are kept indoors throughout their productive life, was first used in 1915 and soon became the most widespread.
Improved laying strains
Improved laying strains were imported to the state poultry stations, and their eggs or chicks were sold to the public. These were such breeds as the Campine, White and Brown Leghorn, Minorca, Wyandotte and Orpington. White Leghorns and Orpingtons were the most popular.
Before the mid-20th century, poultry meat was very much a by-product of the egg industry and involved mainly laying birds that had finished their productive life. This changed during the Second World War, when American hospitals and convalescent homes in the Pacific requested table poultry year round. Producers and retailers were pressured to improve standards, and in 1944 a Poultry Flock Improvement Plan was introduced by the New Zealand Poultry Board and administered by the Department of Agriculture.
After the mid-20th century specialised breeds have been developed for either meat or egg production.
An important job
Day-old chicks are sexed so that future egg-layers can be segregated. The Department of Agriculture held the first chick-sexing examinations in 1935, and in 1943 chick sexing was considered so important that those carrying out the work were prevented from enlisting for military service.
The scale of production significantly increased after the introduction in the early 1930s of cabinet incubators, which allowed large numbers of eggs to hatch at the same time. This enabled poultry farming to evolve into large-scale commercial operations.