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Beef farming

by  Robert Peden

Grazing its cattle on pasture year-round, New Zealand supplies about 8% of the world’s export beef trade – but beef farming has long been the poor cousin of the sheep and dairy industries.

Beef farming in New Zealand

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 2022 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.


19th-century beef farming

The first cattle

The Reverend Samuel Marsden landed the first cattle in New Zealand at his mission station in the Bay of Islands in 1814.

As more Europeans settled in New Zealand in the 1840s, more cattle were imported from Australia. Most were Durhams, now called Shorthorns. Cattle were useful grazing animals because of their hardiness, and their ability to forage on rough pasture and to cope better than sheep with wild dog attacks. They were also vitally important as draught animals.

Hauling and pulling

In the early years of European settlement, cattle’s most important role was perhaps as draught animals. In 1820, at the Kerikeri mission, John Gare Butler was the first person in New Zealand to use an English plough, pulled by a six-bullock team. Much early cultivation was done in this way. Bullock teams also carted supplies and wool bales. They were used in the forestry industry, even in the 20th century, to haul logs out of the bush.

Cattle in swamp and bush country

In the South Island, as large-scale sheep farming became established, sheep were the most profitable farm animal, but cattle were grazed in swamp country where sheep could not thrive. Before drainage programmes began, some stations in swampy areas, like Longbeach in Canterbury, were solely cattle runs.

During the 1860s gold rushes, hundreds of cattle were fattened and driven to the goldfields to provide meat for the miners.

In the North Island, cattle had an important role in the transformation of the bush country to pasture for grazing sheep. After the forest was felled and burned, the land was sown with English grasses. Cattle were used to trample any regrowth of woody plants, and to control long grass that had gone to seed and was not palatable for sheep.

Main beef cattle breeds


The Shorthorn (originally called a Durham) originated in north-east England. Its name distinguishes it from other British cattle breeds with long and medium horns, or polled cattle – cattle with no horns.

When Shorthorns were first brought to New Zealand, they were used for dairy and meat production, and as draught animals. During the 19th century, breeders in New Zealand and elsewhere developed two types: the milking or dairy Shorthorn and the beef Shorthorn.

Crazy cows

In the early days cattle could be difficult to handle. At Te Waimate Station, in South Canterbury, the cattle yards were built with narrow gaps through which a man could escape from a charging beast. The owner recalled how ‘one day Old Jim, the stockman, was too slow, and an infuriated cow tossed him right over the seven-foot rails, then charged round the yard, bellowing, portions of Jim’s nether garments dangling from her horns’. 1

Modern Shorthorns

The modern Shorthorn is a medium-sized animal with a red, roan or white coat. Shorthorns are docile and easy to handle. The cows have few problems calving, and are good mothers, so the calves reach good weights by weaning time. Well-finished Shorthorn carcasses are lean; the meat is marbled with fat, and has a good flavour.

Despite their early popularity, by the early 2000s there were few commercial Shorthorn herds in New Zealand. Most of the 300 Shorthorn bulls that are sold annually by stud breeders are mated with other breeds.


The Aberdeen Angus, now usually known as the Angus, originated in north-eastern Scotland. It is black and has no horns.

Angus cattle were first imported into New Zealand in 1863, when the Australia and New Zealand Land Company introduced a bull and three cows to their station in Southland. In the 1880s they set up the first Angus stud in New Zealand, at Totara Estate in North Otago.

Theory vs practice

Some farm workers had novel ideas about how to deal with difficult cattle. ‘A new chum who was working on [Te Waimate] Station had a theory that a beast would not charge if one turned one’s back on it, and then stooped down and looked at it through one’s legs. But a well-known poley [hornless] bullock disproved his theory, and hit him right on the soft end – luckily, however, without serious injury.’ 2

The Scottish Angus was a small, stocky beast, noted for its hardiness and its ability to thrive on poor pasture. From the 1960s, New Zealand breeders bred it to produce a taller, longer and larger animal.

Modern Angus

The modern Angus is moderately large and well-muscled. It is hardy and can thrive in hard hill country. The cows are highly fertile and good mothers. Angus meat is lean and well-marbled, with excellent flavour.

Angus cattle have been the most popular breed in New Zealand for many years, and comprised 21% of the national beef herd in 2006. The bulls are widely used in cross-breeding, and Angus or Angus-cross cattle account for about 33% of all beef breeding cows.

Cleanskin cattle

On stations where there was a lot of bush, cattle became cunning and hid from musterers. They lived in the forest, coming out to feed on the nearby pastures. Some went for years without being brought in, and large mobs grew up in some places. Unmarked wild cattle – which had never seen yards or received a station earmark or brand – were known as cleanskins.


Hereford cattle, bred in Herefordshire, have distinctive red-and-white body markings and a white face.

In 1868, R. and E. McLean imported Herefords to their Auckland farm. The Holms family founded New Zealand’s first Hereford stud at Waimāhaka, Southland, in 1877.

Since the 1950s, Herefords have been second to the Angus in popularity in New Zealand. In 2006, pure Hereford cattle made up 9% of the national beef herd, and Angus–Hereford crosses another 9%. Herefords are also crossed with other breeds.

The Hereford is hardy and can be run in a wide range of environmental conditions. The cows are highly fertile and calve easily. Herefords convert feed to meat efficiently, and produce a high-quality carcass. The traditional Hereford is horned, but a polled type was bred in the US and imported into New Zealand in 1929.

Other British breeds

Other British beef breeds have been imported, but have had little influence on beef farming. Many are bred for interest value only. They include:

  • Devon
  • Dexter
  • Galloway and Belted Galloway
  • Highland
  • Luing
  • Red Poll
  • South Devon
  • Sussex
  • Welsh Black.
    • E. C. Studholme, Te Waimate: early station life in New Zealand. 2nd ed. Wellington: A. H. & A. W. Reed, 1954, pp. 136–137. › Back
    • Te Waimate, p. 137. › Back

Scientific breeding and cross-breeding

Scientific breeding

In the 1950s and 1960s the Department of Agriculture began research into growth rates of beef cattle at Ruakura Research Station, Hamilton, and at the nearby Whatawhata Hill Country Research Station. They found that growth rates are moderately to highly inheritable, so farmers who measured their cattle’s growth and bred them selectively could considerably improve their herds.

By the mid-1960s, commercial bull-breeders began to weigh and record animals during different stages of their growth. In 1973 Beefplan, a centralised performance recording scheme, was set up to compare animal performance – but the system was limited, as it could only compare animals run together in the same environmental conditions.

Estimated breeding values (EBVs), which predict an animal’s value as a parent compared with other potential parents, enabled scientists and breeders to compare the genetic potential of animals regardless of environmental effects. Beef breeders can now use 17 different EBVs for estimating productive traits, including fertility, growth rates and carcass quality.


Cross-breeding has been a feature of cattle breeding in New Zealand since the 1950s. One benefit is hybrid vigour, where cross-bred offspring outperform their parent breeds.

Another system of cross-breeding deliberately combines the best qualities of two or more breeds. Bulls of beef breeds are mated with dairy-breed cows, producing cross-bred cows with superior milking and reproductive ability. When these cows are mated to a suitable terminal sire (a bull that breeds animals for meat, not further breeding), they produce calves with high growth rates, which will have heavy carcasses. For instance, a Hereford bull is used with a Friesian cow to produce a cow that is then mated to a terminal sire, such as a Charolais, to breed calves that grow to heavy slaughter weights. In 2005–6, 44% of beef cattle in New Zealand were cross-bred.

Exotic cattle breeds

When cattle weights began to be recorded in the 1960s, it became apparent that calves from European breeds (known as exotic breeds) gained weight much faster than British breeds. They also grew to heavier mature weights. In Britain, cattle had been selected for early maturity and meat production, resulting in smaller animals. European cattle were used as draught animals up to the 1920s, so size and bulk were important.

New Zealand beef breeders hoped to use these large animals to improve the productivity of traditional breeds. However, exotic cattle also had problems – calving difficulties and high feed requirements. As a result, they did not replace Angus and Hereford cattle in commercial herds. Instead they are used almost exclusively as terminal sires (sires that breed animals for meat, not further breeding).


The Charolais was the first exotic breed introduced into New Zealand. It was developed in the Charolles district of central France, where it was used as a draught animal and noted for its meat quality. Charolais semen was imported for trials at Lincoln and Ruakura in 1965, and by a commercial farmer the following year.

Live cattle were later imported, resulting in a pure French Charolais type. A ‘New Zealand Charolais’ has also been developed by mating Angus or Hereford cows with Charolais sires over five successive generations.

Charolais are large, muscular horned cattle with white or very light straw-coloured coats. Their high growth rates have made them popular as terminal sires for beef production.


The Simmental originated in western Switzerland, and is the second most common cattle breed worldwide. Although pure Simmental cattle make up only 1% of the New Zealand beef herd, the bulls are popular as terminal sires, and are widely mated with Angus, Hereford, and Angus–Hereford-cross cows.

The Simmental was initially bred for milking as well as meat, and was used as a draught animal. Specialised breeding in different countries has led to variations. However, in general the Simmental is a large, well-muscled horned cow. It is light straw to dark red in colour, with white patches on the head, underside and legs, and often dark patches around the eyes.

The cows have good maternal qualities and a good milk yield, so they produce well-grown weaners. Simmentals have excellent rates of growth and feed conversion – they turn more of their feed into meat than some breeds.


Limousin cattle arrived in New Zealand in the mid-1970s. They have become popular for their hardiness, docility and meat quality, and are widely used as terminal sires.

Limousin cattle are an ancient breed from the Massif Central in France, where they had to cope with poor-quality pasture. This ability has been passed down to the modern breed. Originally a draught animal, they have been used for meat production from the late 19th century.

The modern Limousin is a medium-sized, well-muscled animal with a rich golden-brown coat. Limousins mature earlier than most European breeds and are renowned for their high-quality carcass, with a high meat-to-bone ratio.

Other exotic breeds

Many breeds of beef cattle have been imported into New Zealand since the 1960s, mostly from Europe, but some from Australia, the US and Japan. Many are represented by only a few herds and have had little influence on beef production. They include:

  • Belgian Blue
  • Maine-Anjou
  • Murray Grey
  • Salers
  • Santa Gertrudis
  • Shaver Beef
  • Wagyu.

Beef breeding

Essential role of cattle on hill country

Breeding-cow herds are usually located in high country and on hard and medium hill country. They are complementary to sheep, maintaining and improving pasture quality by stopping it becoming too long and rank, and grazing poor-quality pasture where sheep would not thrive.

Cattle also ‘clean up’ pasture by eating the larvae and eggs of internal parasites that infect sheep, but do not harm cattle. On New Zealand hill country, farms that stock both sheep and cattle are usually more productive than those with just one or the other.

Turning a profit

Beef cattle require much less time and labour to tend than sheep, so they cost less to run.

The income from breeding cow herds is from the sale of surplus calves. So farmers aim to:

  • rear a large number of calves, ideally 95 calves for every 100 cows mated
  • ensure they are as heavy as possible, preferably 230 kilograms or more, to make them attractive to buyers.

Pasture preferences

Cattle and sheep have different grazing patterns, and do not compete for the same feed. Sheep nip pasture plants between their incisor teeth and the dental pad on their upper jaw. They prefer pasture that is short and not too coarse. Cattle graze by wrapping their tongues around foliage and tearing it off. They prefer long pasture, and can thrive on rank feed that sheep would not eat.

There is also some return from old or unproductive cows that are sent for slaughter. Farmers on easier country may also finish (get in prime condition for slaughter) some of the calves that they rear.

The main breeds in beef breeding herds are Angus, Hereford and Angus–Hereford crosses. In large breeding-cow herds, another breed of bull – such as a Simmental or Limousin – might be mated with older cows, which can produce heavy calves that return a premium when sold.

The seasonal round


The seasonal round begins in early spring with calving. Normally the cows are stocked in blocks or paddocks and left to get on with the job. Sometimes a farmer puts young cows having their first calves in more accessible paddocks in case they need help. Calving lasts six weeks.


A freemartin is an infertile female calf born as a twin with a male calf. For beef cattle, usually less than 1% of births are twins. In about 90% of twin births, the twins are male and female. The transfer of blood and hormones between the calves during pregnancy often affects the development of the female’s reproductive tract, so she is born infertile.

Soon after, the animals are mustered into the cattle yards. The calves are separated from the cows and forced into a narrow race for marking. Bull calves are usually castrated using a rubber ring which restricts the flow of blood, so that in time the testicles and scrotum wither and fall off. All the calves are given an earmark which identifies them as belonging to a particular farm or station. Finally a pour-on treatment, which kills both internal and external parasites, is applied to their backs.

The cows are also treated against parasites before being reunited with their calves. The calving percentage (number of calves born per 100 cows) ranges from around 80% on hard hill country to over 90% on easier hills.


A cow’s gestation period (the time from mating to calving) is about 40 weeks. Farmers decide when they want their cows to calve and put the bulls with them to suit. The oestrus cycle of cows is 21 days, so the bulls are left with them for six weeks, ensuring that each cow will be fertile at least once during that time and have the chance to mate. A tight calving period ensures the calves are even in size at sale time, making them more attractive to buyers.

Massive Molesworth

Molesworth Station, in the Marlborough high country, is the biggest farming property in New Zealand, covering 180,476 hectares. It is run as a cattle station, with 10,000 cattle, including 3,500 breeding cows. In autumn, 6,000 cattle are mustered in a single mob.


In autumn, when they are seven or eight months old, calves are weaned off their mothers at the time of the local calf sales. The day before the sale the cows and calves are mustered into the cattle yards and the calves are separated from their mothers.

The best heifer calves are kept to become replacement breeding cows. Often they are all kept, and the selection process is made after the next winter.

Steer calves are sorted for sale according to their size. If the herd is cross-bred, they are also sorted for coat colour so that the lines look attractive to buyers.

Early the next morning, often before daylight, the calves are loaded onto stock trucks and taken to the saleyards, where they are auctioned to farmers who will fatten them for slaughter, for export or the local trade.

Beef finishing and dairy beef

Beef finishing herds

Herds for beef finishing (getting cattle in prime condition for slaughter) are mostly found on the lowlands and downlands. Usually finishing farms buy in calves from hard-hill, high-country and dairy farms. Profits depend on the difference between the cost of buying calves and the return from selling prime cattle, less production costs. Farmers must maintain a high weight-gain rate for the animals, and meet strict quality targets.

Finishing management

Some beef finishers buy young cattle privately. Many buy newly weaned steer calves at the autumn calf sales. Buyers try to purchase even lines of calves with good weights. The aim is to fatten all the steers and sell them before their second winter.

On getting the calves home from the sale, they are treated for internal and external parasites, given a numbered eartag, weighed, and then put onto high-quality grass-and-legume pasture. Farmers weigh their cattle regularly to assess their growth rates. Poorly performing animals are separated out and given more and better feed so they will grow faster. As the cattle reach the desired weight, they are sent to the freezing works for slaughter.

Dairy beef

Without beef animals coming from the dairy industry New Zealand’s beef production could not be maintained at present levels. New Zealand’s beef breeding herd of 1.3 million cows does not produce enough replacement animals to maintain the national herd of 4.5 million and the 2.2 million adult cattle that are slaughtered each year. Indeed, cattle bred in the dairy industry contribute around 50% of New Zealand’s beef production, including Friesian bulls, dairy-cross beef cattle, and surplus dairy cows.

Annually, around 1 million bobby calves from the dairy industry are hand-reared and slaughtered for veal. The dairy industry is also a source of calves for the beef finishing industry. These are usually not castrated, but are finished as bull beef.

Beef farmers also mate some dairy cows to beef-breed bulls – often Herefords. The first-cross heifers are run on easier breeding country and mated to a terminal sire (a sire breeding animals for meat), such as a Charolais. This three-way cross imparts hybrid vigour to the progeny, improving their growth rates.

Beef products

There are two main end uses for New Zealand beef: ‘prime beef’ or table beef, produced from steers, heifers and bulls; and ‘processing’ beef (used in hamburgers) from older bulls, cows, and the forequarters of steers and heifers.

Bull beef

Bulls grow 10–20% faster than steers and heifers and are more flexible in terms of sale time if pastures deteriorate in a dry season. Most bulls come from the dairy industry. They are purchased as 10–12-week-old weaners and farmed for 14 to 18 months. The target carcass weight for a 16-month-old bull is about 250 kilograms, which requires a daily weight gain of over 1 kilogram. Some farmers slaughter heavy bulls as 2½-year-olds, at 350 kilograms and heavier. However, mature bulls can be difficult to handle.


Cattle can live for a long time and grow to enormous size. Station manager Peter Newton recalled a bullock that had gone bush on Mt White Station, in Canterbury. One year they managed to get it into the station yards with a mob of other cattle. He estimated that it stood at about 17 hands – the size of a big horse – and calves could easily walk under its belly. In 1954 it was found dead near the bush where it had lived. The bullock had been fire-branded, a practice discontinued before 1924 – so it was at least 30 years old.

Steer and heifer beef production

Steers are usually purchased as weaners at about six to eight months of age. Ideally they are slaughtered at 20 months, weighing about 300 kilograms, to avoid the cost of a second winter. Those that go through another winter are slaughtered at 400 kilograms and 30 months.

Heifers are mostly finished for the local trade (their meat does not meet the criteria of the export trade), with a target weight around 235 kilograms at 18 months of age. Steer and heifer carcasses are subject to a more complex grading system than bulls, so for good returns, they must be at their best at the time of slaughter.

Cows are not slaughtered at a particular target weight.

Hononga, rauemi nō waho

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How to cite this page: Robert Peden, 'Beef farming', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 15 June 2024)

He kōrero nā Robert Peden, i tāngia i te 24 o Noema 2008