In the 1860s and 1870s most Waikato farmers raised cattle and sheep, and grew root and grain crops. From 1882 refrigerated shipping allowed perishable goods to be sent to Britain, where there was a growing market for butter and cheese. Would-be dairy farmers snapped up Waikato land because it was ideal for cows – flat or rolling – with year-round rainfall, abundant sunshine, and winters that were mild enough for grass to grow nearly year-round.
Electricity powered the machines that revolutionised the Waikato dairy industry. From 1921 the Horahora hydro dam on the Waikato River supplied electricity to dairy farms throughout the region. Within four years at least six dairy factories and 1,000 milking machines were run by electricity.
Many Waikato swamps had been drained by land companies in the 1800s, and drainage schemes continued into the 1900s. Topdressing of peat and alluvial soils with superphosphate and lime slowly improved pasture. The replacement of shorthorn cattle by Ayrshire, Jersey, Holstein and Friesian breeds lifted the quality of dairy herds.
The New Zealand Co-operative Dairy Company
Small dairy factories were established in Waikato from the 1880s, but by 1910 there were two main companies – the New Zealand Dairy Association and the Waikato Co-operative Dairy Company, whose owner, William Goodfellow, was an enthusiast for mechanisation. Milking machines saved farmers time, letting them add to their herds and increase milk production. Farm cream separators eliminated the need to take milk to creameries for separation before factory processing. The Department of Agriculture worried that these new machines were unhygienic and that tainted dairy products would undermine New Zealand’s export market. Goodfellow educated his suppliers in the proper use of machinery, and managed to win the department over.
Speciality cheese pleases
In 2009 nearly half of the winners in the Cuisine NZ Champions of Cheese Awards came from the Waikato region. In contrast to the large dairy factories, artisan cheesemakers use traditional labour-intensive methods to make gourmet cheeses. They include Over the Moon Dairy Company at Putaruru, Kaimai Cheese Company at Waharoa, Aroha Organic Goat Cheese near Te Aroha, Cloudy Mountain at Pirongia, Meyer Gouda Cheese in Hamilton and Albert Alferink’s Mercer Cheese Shop.
Goodfellow also advocated amalgamation of dairy companies, and in 1919 his Waikato Co-operative Dairy Company joined the New Zealand Dairy Association to form the New Zealand Co-operative Dairy Company – the largest in New Zealand.
Large dairy factories
From the 1920s lorries began collecting cream from farms, and in the 1950s tanker collection of whole milk started. Many small dairy factories closed, and large plants such as the New Zealand Co-operative Dairy Company factory at Te Rapa, Hamilton, opened.
Dairying in the 21st century
In the 1990s the New Zealand Co-operative Dairy Company was rebranded as New Zealand Dairy Group, which joined the New Zealand Dairy Board and Kiwi Co-operative Dairies to form Fonterra Co-operative Group in 2001. In the 2010s Fonterra dominated the dairy industry in Waikato and throughout New Zealand. Two Waikato-based dairy companies were Tatua Co-operative Dairy Company at Tatuanui, and Open Country Dairy at Waharoa. In 2012 Waikato had more than 1.8 million dairy cattle, over a quarter of the national herd, and was New Zealand’s main dairying region.
Intensive farming in Waikato has led to serious environmental damage. Nutrients from fertilisers and animal waste have seeped into waterways, encouraging the growth of weeds and toxic algae. Stock have compacted soil, causing contaminated water to pond and run off into streams and lakes. Reducing pollution while maintaining farm profitability is a major challenge for the 21st century.
On hill country and in districts distant from dairy factories, sheep and cattle farming was more profitable. In 2012 there were approximately 245,000 beef cattle and over 570,000 sheep, 6.5% and just under 2% of the national totals respectively. Deer, goat and pig farming were also significant.
From the 1950s Waikato thoroughbred horse studs, particularly those located between Hamilton and Cambridge, established a reputation for breeding champions. The notable staying power of these horses was attributed to high-quality Waikato pastures. Famous stud stallion Sir Tristram and double Olympic equestrian event winner Charisma both came from Waikato studs.
Waikato has been a wine-growing region since 1901, when vineyards were established near Te Kauwhata. In the 2010s Vilagrad Wines at Ōhaupō, started in 1906, was the oldest surviving winery, despite a devastating fire in 2015 which destroyed some of its buildings. Other wineries included Rongopai Wines and TK Vintners and Bottlers’ contract winery at Te Kauwhata, and Mystery Creek Wines at Ōhaupō.
Horticulture and crops
Asparagus, onions, blueberries, potatoes and melons were the main horticultural crops in the 2010s. Stone fruit, notably nectarines and peaches, and pipfruit, especially apples and pears, were also important crops.
The region also became known for growing maize to provide stock food. In the year to 30 June 2012, about 50,000 tonnes of maize were harvested – over a quarter of the total New Zealand crop.