Story: Sheep farming

Page 5. The refrigerated meat trade

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Beginnings of the trade

The first shipment of frozen meat was sent from New Zealand to England in 1882. It was a turning point for New Zealand’s economic history, and for sheep farming. At first, an international depression kept prices low, and the trade was not consistently profitable until the mid-1890s. But farmers realised that, once shipping became more efficient and costs went down, the trade would provide a profitable outlet for the country’s surplus sheep. The industry grew quickly: in 1895 New Zealand exported 2.3 million sheep carcasses; in 1900, 3.3 million; and in 1910, 5.8 million.

Not all plain sailing

The 1882 voyage of the Dunedin with its cargo of frozen meat has been described as a turning point in New Zealand’s history. However, sparks from the engine that drove the refrigerating machinery set the ship’s sails alight twice. When the ducts for cold air that kept the cargo frozen became blocked, the captain crawled down them to clear out the ice. By the time the ship reached London, he was – not surprisingly – described as looking overstrained and weary.

Smaller farms

Refrigerated shipping made small farms viable. The Liberal government was elected in 1890 with a policy of ‘bursting up’ the great estates (dividing them into smaller farms). In the South Island, between 1891 and 1912, the government bought 1,296,942 acres (524,800 hectares) from 223 estates. In the North Island 2.3 million acres (930,000 hectares) of Māori land were purchased for Pākehā settlers. In 1892 John McKenzie, the minister of lands, established the Department of Agriculture to help spread farming knowledge.

Expansion of farming

Land was farmed more intensively, and farming practices were fine-tuned and improved. In the North Island, settlers cleared more bush and sowed grasses and clovers. In the South Island, tussock country was ploughed and turned into pasture. Turnips that had been sown for winter feed were used to fatten sheep, and larger areas were planted. In Southland, wetlands were drained, cultivated, and sown in pasture. Blood-and-bone, a by-product of the freezing works, and superphosphate became more widely used to fertilise pastures and feed crops.

The basic systems set up in the 20 years after the frozen meat trade began have lasted into the 2000s.


Cross-breeding was well established in New Zealand before 1882. After the frozen meat trade began, the practice increased, and Merinos were soon marginalised to the semi-arid and mountainous country of the South Island. By 1900, 86% of the national flock were defined in government statistics as crossbreds and other longwools. By 1912 this had increased to 93%.

Different breeds for different country

The move to cross-breeding and the intensification in farming methods encouraged farmers to find breeds that suited their local environments. However, regardless of the type of country, New Zealand breeders wanted a dual-purpose sheep. Factors related to meat production – the number of lambs born, growth rate and carcass conformation – were important, but so was wool.

How to cite this page:

Hugh Stringleman and Robert Peden, 'Sheep farming - The refrigerated meat trade', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 14 July 2024)

Story by Hugh Stringleman and Robert Peden, published 24 Nov 2008, updated 1 Mar 2015