I’m riding on the back of a four-wheeler with the perfect cone shaped volcanic Mt. Taranaki in the backdrop. A kiwi (New Zealander) farmer drives through the lush green pastures and I listen as he describes each of his Ayrshire dairy cows to me. This is one of my many memories on my journey to learn more about the New Zealand dairy industry.
New Zealand is an island country of 4.4 million people which is a little over half the population of New York City (8.1 million). They are located in the southwestern Pacific Ocean and consist of a main North and South Island.
I was intrigued to travel to New Zealand ever since high school because of the scope of their dairy industry. This goal became a reality when I had the privilege to study abroad at the agriculture school, Lincoln University on New Zealand’s South Island this past spring.
Going from a dairy farm in Pennsylvania to living in New Zealand for four months, it took some time to get use to the differences within the industry. New Zealand is predominantly all pasture based, seasonal production. This leads to designated calving, breeding and drying off periods throughout the year. It gets confusing that their seasons are opposite and the units of measurements are different. I heard discussions of kilograms of milk solids per cow, stocking rates per hectare, pre and post grazing pasture mass, six-week incalf rates and empty rates. The stocking rate of cows per hectare is a farmer’s balancing challenge for milk production, maintenance of pasture quality and environmental impacts. In reference to reproduction, the six-week incalf rate is the percent of animals bred in the first six weeks of the breeding season and the empty rate is the amount of animals that did not conceive. After grasping some of the different lingo, I was able to further explore their industry.
Currently, the average herd size is 386 cows. Similar to the U.S, there is a trend of herds getting larger. This is especially true on the South Island where there are larger farms and ones that are being converted from sheep to dairy.
New Zealand plays a key role on the global dairy market. They export 95% of their milk production making them the world’s largest exporter of dairy products. Although they are a smaller country they produce 4% of the world’s milk. Dairy farmers with their exporting mentality put more emphasis on producing high milk solids because most of the milk is converted to milk powder for export. There has been an increasing trend according to the New Zealand Dairy Statistics 2010/11 of the average milk solids per cow which is currently 334kg (736 pounds) per lactation. In addition the average liters of milk produced per cow in a season is 3,829 (1,011 gal).
New Zealand continues to uphold its strong dairy industry and tackles challenges as discussed in my third year dairy science class. It was a different feeling at first being the only foreign student in the class and not knowing anyone. The class was great for meeting more kiwis and learning about the dairy industry through our class assignments. One of the assignments we completed was on current issues affecting the industry. Three current issues in New Zealand’s dairy industry that were commonly discussed were inductions of calving, the public’s perception of ‘dirty dairying’ and sustainability of housing versus pasture based systems.
I did not realize the use of inductions in seasonal systems before going to New Zealand. Farmers can sometimes induce cows to calve to match pasture growth. This results in many stillborn or weak calves. In the current season farmers are only allowed to induce up to 4% of the herd. Overall, inductions are becoming less common and are being phased out.
The second issue focused on the term coined ‘dirty dairying’. New Zealand works to maintain a clean and green image. They have some of the safest drinking water in the world. I was amazed that the industry still faces criticism from the public through activist groups similar in the U.S. Even though the cows are not confined to barns the public is concerned about nitrate leaching and dairy cows contaminating the water.
The current issue I explored was the sustainability of pasture based compared to indoor housing systems. Factors included profitability, environmental effects and animal wellbeing. During the winter, wintering barns or standoff pads are more relevant in the Southland and Otago areas because of higher moisture and colder temperatures. In addition, the economics play a significant role in this decision making. Housed systems are not common but will likely be seen more in the future especially on the southern part of the south island. Overall, it was really interesting to learn about these three current issues of induction, ‘dirty dairying’ and sustainability of farming systems.
One of the big things that really surprised me was their milking preparation procedures. I realized on the first farm I visited that they do not pre-dip the cows, strip or dry the teats off before milking the animal. They just put the units on. If the cow is really dirty they would wipe her off. I later found out from talking to other farmers and in my dairy science class that this is a common practice. It was fascinating when my lecturer said that New Zealand’s research has found that in the grazing system the pre-dipping procedures do not make much of a difference. I found this hard to believe and it is interesting that it works for them. Post-dipping is still really essential in their milking protocol and all the milk is pasteurized.
There are many additional contrasting points with the New Zealand and U.S. dairy industry. In general, the animals are shorter with more width, depth of fore and rear rib and sound feet and legs to fit the grazing systems. There are more cross breeds called Kiwicrosses than I realized. 38.9% of the 4.5 million cows in New Zealand are Holstein-Friesian/ Jersey crossbreeds while 40.0% are purebred Holstein-Friesian. In addition they are not allowed to use any rBST and Fonterra is their main milk cooperative that farmers ship to.
Even with the differences between the New Zealand and United States dairy industries. The farmers continue to uphold the same high level of passion for what they do.
In reflecting on my time in the beautiful country of New Zealand, I am so thankful for the opportunity. I did not know anybody before going there and can’t believe all the people I was able to meet. This whole experience has given me a broader perspective on the agricultural industry. It showed me the value of looking at situations from alternative points of view. There is not a one size fits all aspect in the dairy industry. Furthermore this experience has reinforced the value of getting out of my comfort zone. Building new skills and trying new things allowed me to grow more as an individual and I encourage others to do the same.