"A major factor in the success of the New Zealand dairy industry has been the readiness with which technological advances have been incorporated into farming practice, often enough under the stress of falling prices and the necessity to vindicate land values resulting from excessive optimism in periods of rising prices."
W M Hamilton: NZ Journal of Science & Technology 1942.
In the nearly sixty years since Hamilton was writing, similar influences have acted on the industry, and it has reacted similarly: new technology has been incorporated into both farming and processing to counteract cost increases.
A New Zealand Based Multinational
When Hamilton, an agriculture scientist who became Director-General of the DSIR, produced his masterly survey of the industry, most of the features were in place which have led to the Dairy Board, as the central agency of the dairy industry, becoming through expansion and diversification the nearest thing there is to a New Zealand based multinational – an organisation with a strong technological base and an ability to exercise influence over world markets.
In essence, these features were a low cost system of production on the farm, a co-operative system for processing, centralised marketing, and the existence of scientific support services working closely with the industry. Taken together they have made the dairy industry a unique grouping which has shown itself capable of responding to the loss of markets for its traditional products by the development of new markets and new products. In doing so it has developed new technologies and built on existing ones. It has inevitably become more sophisticated and interdependent.
Trends which existed when Hamilton was writing have continued: mechanisation and better organisation on the farm have led to fewer men dealing with larger herds, further factory amalgamation has taken place and herd and pasture improvement has continued, giving greater unit production. All this has required increased investment.
The technologies in which this investment has been made have come from a variety of sources: the farm, research institutions and overseas. Scientists have tested them and proposed modifications to suit them for widespread adoption in the industry.
A number of the technologies important to the industry are featured elsewhere on this site: refrigerated sea transport as a means of providing access to the United Kingdom market was quite as important to dairying as it was to the meat industry, and dairying is probably the primary beneficiary of the phosphate/clover system of pasture improvement.
According to Birks, the first government electrical engineer, the main justification for rural electrification was to provide power for the dairy farmer. A changeover switch was used to limit peak demands, the original charging basis, so that, when the milking machine was not in use, water could be heated for use in the milking shed. The number of electric motors used on all farms rose in an exponential fashion from a near zero base in 1920 to over 60 000 in 1941. The advent of reliable internal combustion engines with high tension magneto ignition and modern carburettors after 1914 had allowed mechanisation to take off on farms but electricity was the preferred power source for milking machines and, by 1941, 78 percent were electrically driven. At the same time 6.5 percent of all electricity sold was for dairy water heating.
Successful milking machines had been developed in the first decade of the century; their labour saving potential made them attractive as dairying expanded but the cost and poor quality of the rubberware and the lack of reliable motive power hindered adoption initially. However, by the end of the war in 1918-19, about 50 percent of cows were machine milked, with 7600 machines installed. By 1942, 86 percent were machine milked.
For a long time, farmers considered it necessary to handstrip cows after machine milking. During World War II, labour shortages forced some abandonment of the practice and Hamilton refers to the ‘growing volume of evidence that non-stripping does not affect production’. Surveys by the Dairy Board in 1942-3 and 1947-8 indicated production was not affected by non-stripping and gradually this became the practice: by 1955 80 percent of farmers in a survey had cut back the labour of milking by eliminating hand-stripping.
Improved Milking Techniques:
Research on milking techniques was carried out at the Agriculture Department’s station at Ruakura from the early forties and in 1952 a deputation from the Federated Farmers waited on the Minister of Agriculture seeking to have the findings embodied in the design of a machine. This was duly unveiled in June 1955. All parts in contact with milk were stainless steel and it had an automatic cleaning system. Its design was made available for commercial exploitation (ref Dairy Exporter 1 July 2023 and 1 July 2023).
In his 1942 paper, Hamilton noted that the design of milking sheds and yards had received a lot of attention and that the walk-through type of bail had completely superseded the old back-out type but he can have had little appreciation of the productivity improvements which would result from further advances in milking shed design. In the late forties and early fifties there was a lot of interest in stoopless milking: the removal of backbending by raising the cow above the milker in an elevated bail. In 1952, a Waikato farmer, Mr Ron Sharp, conceived the herringbone design and converted his existing shed creating a milking system which combined stoopless milking with batch processing of the cows which were brought into the shed in groups. The term herringbone is derived from the way the cows are ‘angle parked’. The idea quickly caught on and its adoption was given impetus by Massey College where, after extensive study, the College’s milking shed was converted in 1955.
The fifties were a time of labour shortages and since the herringbone system saved both time and effort, it became the industry standard. It allowed more cows to be milked with the same labour or for a labour unit to be dispensed with. Effectively it halved milking times. Productivity improvements through changed shed design have been a major contributor to the increased size of herds which now average 220 cows.
Where there are many practitioners, as in dairy farming (14,600 farmers in 1999), the diffusion of a new technology can take a long time. Only after he has the facts on a new technology can a prospective investor weigh up the economics and decide whether an investment is justified. In the dairy industry, a unique publication has, since 1925, brought to the farmer details of the latest advances in his world. With probably more effect than field-days, advisory services and conferences, the Dairy Exporter has kept dairy farmers up to date. And, particularly in the days before television, it was very much a family magazine, recognizing dairy farming for what it usually was – a family enterprise. Even today, 93% of dairy farmers read the magazine and a majority consider it an important source of information.
Almost all the dairy co-operative companies take the Exporter on a bulk subscription for their suppliers.
One of the Exporter‘s most effective means of communicating its message has been to run practical farming stories based on the personal experiences and practices of leading farmers, but it has reported fully on all the issues of the day, covering manufacturing and marketing as well as farming itself. If it has had a bias it has been the clear message that research pays, and leading scientists such as McMeekan and Levy were treated like gurus, with full coverage being given to their views, whether they were reporting research results or making observations following overseas travel.
Farmers would have found it hard not to become conversant with the herringbone system as, over the years, the Exporter carried numerous articles on it and in the sixties made it the subject of a regular column Herringbone Wrinkles.
The herringbone shed was taken as an example of a new technology by a geographer who studied its adoption in 267 owner-operated farms in the Waikato in 1969 She found that, as might be expected, the rate of adoption correlated well with the farmer’s willingness to adopt other innovations and with his managerial ability. By 1979 over 60% of the existing sheds were of this type, as were most of the new ones.
But herringbones are not the last word in shed design. A new system has appeared which is even more efficient, particularly with large herds. It is now considered possible for three men to milk 1,000 cows in two hours. In the rotary system the batches of the herringbone have been replaced by a continuous flow. The cows step on to a constantly moving circular platform and, once the cups are put on, the procedure can be wholly automatic, with the cows stepping off again when the cycle has been completed.