1918 19th Century On the Land Electricity Iron Sands to Steel Think Big
On the Land


Aerial Fertilizer
Dairy Industry 1
Dairy Industry 2
Dairy Industry 3
Dairy Innovation Table
Electric Fencing
Wool Scouring 1
Wool Scouring 2

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The Electric Fence

An innovation that complemented the pastoral technology was the electric fence. This allowed a practice known as break-grazing: the rationing of pasture in periods of slow pasture growth.

Initially pioneered in Wisconsin, the electric fencing concept was introduced to New Zealand by Professor Riddet at Massey in 1938. The idea took off about 1950 when sales of electric fences boomed. From a cumbersome trailerload of material taking hours to erect, the fence was greatly simplified so that it could be easily shifted and took only minutes to erect. Used intelligently, an electric fence can permit the most efficient use of feed when it is in short supply in autumn and winter.

A sophisticated home market and competition between rival firms has led to a highly successful electric fencing export industry.

Breeding for Milk Yield

Another avenue towards increased production, improvements in the cattle, was also followed. Penicillin was used for the cure of mastitis and the longer term task of breeding for milk yield was tackled. In 1942, breed societies representing the main dairy breeds were well established and in Hamilton’s words ‘fostered maintenance of a high standard of conformation in pedigree herds’ but Hamilton clearly thought that the emphasis was wrong; too little testing was done, and too much attention paid to fancy breed points:

"Bovine mannequins should find no place in an industry whose continued progress rests on its ability to achieve lower cost production than its competitors overseas."

He suggested that lessons could be learned from the way the Danes had achieved a rapid improvement in production per cow, through the use of bulls whose female progeny had been shown to have higher than average fat production.

In fact the Dairy Board had taken on national herd improvement work in 1936 and a Herd Improvement Plan was adopted in 1939. In 1950 the Board started an artificial breeding service following experimental work at Ruakura by Dr J. James and, within four years, was inseminating over 80,000 cows. During the 1950s artificial insemination of dairy cows increased dramatically from 1500 cows in 1949 to 500,000 in 1960. Through the use of selected bulls an improvement in the national herd of about 7% was achieved in the two decades from 1960.

Scale Economies through Transport Advances

Transport considerations have played an important part in the development of the dairy industry. It is well known how the advent of the home-separator about the turn of the century allowed the extension of the factory system to newly developed areas where it would otherwise have been precluded by poor roading. Hamilton remarked on the importance that motor transport had in making possible daily cream collection from outlying areas and in widening the radius of supply for cheese factories. He also noted the better social conditions it brought to farming communities and the breaking down of the barrier between town and country.

Hamilton’s Comprehensive 1940 Survey

Hamiltons survey is in eleven parts and took some 160 pages in the NZ Journal of Science & Technology in 1942 and 1943. Because he tried to be comprehensive, the reader learns a lot about New Zealand society at the time and about the status of a range of technologies. His attempt to consider all influences led him to make one notable gaffe. Air transport, he wrote, … so far as one can see is not likely to have any direct influence on farming unless the associated meteorological services needed for efficient air services prove useful to agriculture. To be fair, he did say at the beginning of the survey that it was presented with some hesitation and a realisation of the pitfalls likely to await a prophet in a rapidly changing world!

Milk Tankers

The New Zealand Co-operative Dairy the country’s biggest’ pioneered in the early 1950’s an idea from California: tanker delivery of whole milk from farms to the factory. As well as requiring substantial investment in stainless steel tankers, this move required investment on the farm: in holding tanks on a concrete deck and in a good access road with a solid cattle stop and room for the tanker to turn around. The widespread adoption of this technology in the 1960’s led to a decline in pig raising based on skim milk, allowing the farmer to devote more time to milk production and contributing to the amalgamation of factories by extending the economic collection area. It also made possible a rise in spray skim powder production.

Nowadays the reach of the major dairy factories has been dramatically expanded by the introduction of special milk trains.

Fewer Farms – Bigger Herds

Superior milking systems, the electric fence, improved animal health and breed, and other advances have all contributed to improvements in dairy farm productivity over the past forty years but this has not made dairying a more popular occupation; the number of farmers has more than halved and the remaining farmers have maintained their living standards in the face of reducing real returns by increasing herd size.  The number in the average herd had doubled to 120 by 1980 and is now 220.  Doing this without changing the number of labour units on the farm has only been possible because of the technological changes that have occurred.

The Science of Milk

Milk, the sole food source for the very young, is a versatile raw material providing a source of carbohydrate, fat, protein, minerals and vitamins.  It has traditionally been the raw material for butter and cheese but, as science has been applied to gaining an understanding of its nature, so has its range of uses grown.  An early example of the benefits of the application of scientific techniques is provided by the growth of the multinational company, Glaxo Ltd. In its latest guise (GlaxoSmithKline) it is the world’s biggest pharmaceutical company with sales of US$26 billion and Research & Development expenditure of US$7.3 billion.

At Bunnythorpe in 1904 an export-import firm, J. Nathan and Company, built the first factory in the world specifically designed for milk powder production.  A laboratory was established at Palmerston North for quality control purposes.  After World War I, further dried milk factories were built and the scientific facilities transferred to Hamilton.  With the opening of a London office to facilitiate dried milk export the manufacture of infant milk food expanded and with it the need to understand the importance of minerals in the formulations.  From this the company’s interest widened to the field of theraputic substances and vaccines.  The second World War increased the demand for medical supplies, penicillin production was started and Glaxo has become Britain’s largest pharmaceutical organisation, exporting widely and relying heavily on research to maintain its lead.

Scientific Support Institutions

While scientific support for on-farm developments in New Zealand has come principally from the Ruakura Agricultural Research station, Massey University, and from the Dairy Board itself, that for the processing side of the industry has come from an organisation specifically established for that purpose, the Dairy Research Institute.  This dates from 1927, being the first of the specialised research institutions, jointly supported by the Government and Industry, to be established following the visit to New Zealand of Sir Frank Heath, whose main recommendation had been the setting up of the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research.  The history of the Dairy Research Institute has been recounted by one of its former Directors, Dr W A McGillivray. 

The Institute has provided its most valuable direct assistance to the industry in the years of diversification since 1960 but this has been possible because of the foundation of scientific understanding of milk and milk processing built up since it was founded.  In the early years, problems related to the quality control of butter and cheese manufacture received attention, though the pressure of war caused work to be done on an alternative product, anhydrous milk fat as an alternative to butter. After the war, interest developed in the so-called by-products of the industry, casein, buttermilk powder, and skim milk powder, and in whole milk powder.

As they did in many sectors of the post-war economy, labour shortages proved a stimulus to change on the manufacturing side of the industry.  In 1948 the Dairy Board set up what would become the Dairy Factory Mechanisation Committee with the main purpose being to attract a better type of labour to cheesemaking: a labour intensive activity involving hard physical work.

Mechanised Cheesemaking

Initially attention was directed to devising means of mechanically stirring the curd and to the packing of cheese in crates.  Other improvements followed but the innovation which produced mechanisation sufficient to reduce the number of labour units rather than just the hard work, the Cheddarmaster System, arose out of a comprehensive programme started at the Institute in 1960.  It depended on the detailed understanding of the chemical and microbiological aspects of cheese making which had been built up at the institute over the years of its existence.

Except for the first steps in cheesemaking, coagulation and curdcutting, the Cheddarmaster makes the process a continuous one.

After trials at the Institute and at a Taranaki factory, the first commercial installations were made in 1966.  The care that had gone into the development work was rewarded by sales of items of the system to the United Kingdom, Eire, Canada and Australia. Internationally it is the most widely used system of mechanised cheesemaking.  Justification for its installation comes from its labour-saving capability which, as might be expected, is greatest in big factories.  Where over 450,000 litres of milk are processed per shift, fewer than 25 men can do what previously required over 100.

Cheddar Master

Continuous buttermaking does not appear to offer quite the economic advantages of cheesemaking and its adoption was slow in New Zealand at first; it is now widely in use, with imported European machines being among the largest used.


For the McMeekan story see: Gordon McLauchlan, "McMeekan – A Biography", Hodder And Stoughton, 1982.

P S Robertson, "The New Cheesemaking: From Art to Science" in "New Zealand is Different " Chemical Milestones in New Zealand History" Clerestory Press, 1999

W A McGillivray, "New Zealand Dairy Research Institute: A History of the First Fifty Years 1927 – 1977", NZ Dairy Research Institute , 1978.

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