A Timeline of Dairy in NZ


With a climate and terrain near perfect for agricultural production, it’s no wonder our rich history of dairying goes right back to some of the earliest European settlers. Here is a brief history of dairy farming in New Zealand.


1814, Samuel Marsden brings the first cattle (a bull and two heifers) to NZ.

1846, our first dairy product (cheese) is exported.

1871, the first dairy cooperative is formed in Otago.

1882, refrigerated shipping begins.

1884, the first Holstein Friesian cow is imported to the South Island.

1886, the Anchor brand is created.

1893, the introduction of electricity and a Scottish mechanical milking machine leads to machine milking, which becomes more common in the early 1900s. 


1913, NZ’s first lactose factory is built at Edendale, Southland.

1915, the government begins a programme under its Discharged Soldiers Settlement Act to provide potential farming land for 9,500 soldiers returning from WW1.

1918, 7600 milking machines have been installed around the country by the end of WW1. And, the New Zealand Dairy Control Board is established to market our dairy products overseas.

1927, Dairy Research Institute is established as NZ’s first specialised research institution.

1930, there are now more than 400 cooperative dairy companies.

1937/38, Bill Gallagher Senior makes his first electric fence and farmers start using them on their farms.


1940s, during this decade the number of New Zealand’s farms using milking machines is over 50%.

1945, NZ has a cow population of 1.7million, 40,000 farmers and 409 dairy factories.

1948, many aspects of farming are revolutionised with the arrival of the first British-made Ferguson tractor.

1951, tanker delivery of whole milk from farms to factory begins.

1952, development of the herringbone dairy by Waikato farmer, Ron Sharp. This new design combined pit parlours with angled stalls on either side and meant twice as many cows could be milked at once.

1957, Britain agrees to allow the free entry of NZ dairy products until 1967.


1961, New Zealand Dairy Board established to market dairy products.

1969, the first turnstyle dairy is developed by Merv Hicks, a Taranaki dairy farmer improving efficiency by leaps and bounds as a thousand cows could now be milked in by just two people in just a few hours.

1969, there are 2.3 million cows, 25,000 farmers, and now only 229 dairy factories. 

1973, dairy exports face troubling times as the UK joins the EEC (European Economic Community).

1978, Supplementary Minimum Price scheme (SMPs) is introduced to guarantee farmers a minimum income.

1980s, during this decade the average herd size is 130 cows.

1984, Labour government begins phasing out agricultural support and subsidies (SMPs).

1985, the Ruakura milk harvester is developed. This system has many of the features we know of modern day milking.


1990, Average farm size - 72ha and 166 cows.

1990s, at the start of this decade only 7% of dairy cows are farmed in the South Island; this has risen to 22% by 1999.

1994, the national herd is 2.7 million strong, we have 15,000 farmers and 27 factories.

1996, only 12 dairy cooperatives remain. The Dairy Board is dissolved with its assets transferred to these companies.

1997, cow population 3 million, average herd size - 308.

2000, more than 95% of the industry is represented by the two largest dairy companies - Waikato-based New Zealand Dairy Group and Taranaki-based Kiwi Co-operative Dairies.

2001, the dairy industry is deregulated and the two aforementioned dairy companies merge to form Fonterra. The first cow is milked with an Automatic Milking System. Average farm size - 105ha and 286 cows.

2005, cow population almost 4 million.

2007, 21% of dairies are rotary milking up to 800 cows with two people in two hours. Average herd size - 327 cows.

2008, first commercial farms adopt automatic milking.

2009, cow and people population is around even (just over 4 million).

2011, cow population is increasing at a greater rate than resident people population. Average herd size – 386.

2013, a new dairy industry strategy is launched that focuses on competitive and responsible dairy farming. Average herd size – 402.

2014, 200 years of dairy in NZ. NZ earns a record $18.1 billion of export revenue from dairy farming. National herd - 4.9 million cows. 39% of NZ’s cows are now located in the South Island.


There’s no doubt technology will play a large part in how our industry operates in the future.

Some farms have also already adopted automatic milking machines run by computer. Cows walk voluntarily to the milking shed once or twice a day and wait for their turn on the robot milker. No human assistance is required.

The integration of technology and innovative advancements such as milk sensors and herd management software have played a big role in driving productivity, enabling farmers to fine tune milk production while also maintaining accurate real-time data about each individual animal.

The biggest challenges facing our dairy industry as we move into the future are around sustainability, both financial and environmental. Check out this article from expert Keith Woodford for his take on how to address these issues here.


Image sourced from Te Ara The Encyclopaedia of NZ