Importance of beef cattle
Beef cattle have generally been less important than sheep and dairy cattle to the New Zealand economy. Before refrigeration, sheep farming for wool was profitable, because wool could be easily stored and transported, and had a ready market in Britain, Europe and the United States. Dairy products, particularly butter and cheese, were exported to Australia, and sold in New Zealand’s growing towns.
Refrigerated shipping opened up an export market for beef in Britain. However, New Zealand beef producers had to compete with large North and South American cattle operations, which have lower transport costs.
Bobbies, bulls and weaners
A bobby calf is a milk-fed calf at least four days old, destined for slaughter for the veal trade. Uncastrated male cattle are bulls; a castrated male is a steer. A weaner is a calf making the transition from an all-milk diet to grazing, around the age of six months. A heifer is a young female that has not been mated.
Sheep and cattle numbers
The ratio of sheep to cattle over the years illustrates the secondary role of beef cattle in New Zealand. In 1851 the ratio was six sheep to one cattle beast (including beef, dairy and draught cattle). From then until the early 1880s, sheep numbers increased dramatically in proportion to cattle.
Between 1950 and 1990 the ratio was steady at 12–14 sheep to one beef cattle beast. However, after the government removed agricultural subsidies and the farming industry was restructured from the mid-1980s, sheep numbers fell more than cattle. In 2000, the ratio was around nine sheep to one beef cattle beast. In 2020, it was less than seven to one.
The number of beef cattle peaked at 6.3 million in 1975. By the early 2000s it had declined to about 4.5 million. In 2020 it was 3.9 million.
Beef production in New Zealand
Beef production in New Zealand has several distinctive features.
- Beef breeding cattle are run with sheep on New Zealand hill farms.
- Most cattle are not fattened on grain, but feed on grass pastures.
- Surplus animals from the dairy industry are also used for meat production.
New Zealand exports 80% of the beef it produces. In 2006 the country’s beef exports were worth over $2 billion, or around 10% of the country’s agricultural exports. New Zealand produced only 1% of the world’s beef, but supplied about 8% of the global beef trade.
Cattle and chattels
In 1899 writer Taylor White noted that cattle were once known as oxen. He explained the origins of the word ‘cattle’: ‘Formerly the bull and cow were spoken of as “large cattle,” and the sheep and goat as “small cattle”; for “cattle” and “chattel” were originally the one word, as denoting the property or wealth of the individual.’ 1
Distribution of beef cattle
Most beef breeding and finishing (getting animals in prime condition for meat production) is done in the North Island, which had 73.5% of all beef cattle and 69% of breeding cows in 2007. When the North Island’s bush was cleared to develop farms, cattle coped better on the rough hill-country pastures. Pasture grows faster in warmer, wetter parts of the North Island, and cattle improve it for sheep.
Breeding and finishing systems
Breeding cows can be run on poor-quality pasture, and may get some supplementary feeding with hay or silage in winter. Finishing cattle are grazed on high-quality pasture, as they need to reach weight-gain targets. In winter they may be fed hay or silage, or be break-fed on a forage crop like chou moellier.
Breeding and finishing beef cattle is a tiered system. Stud farms on better country sell bulls to breeding farms on hard hill and high country; these breeding farms sell young cattle to finishing farms on the easy hills and flat land, where they are fattened primarily for the export market.