Agriculture and Livestock in New Zealand: Sheep, Cows and Fruit

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About five percent of New Zealand's labor force is in agriculture (compared to 2.5 percent in the U.S.). Food, wool and other primary commodities made up two thirds of New Zealand's exports in the early 2000s, compared to 88 percent in 1970).

Land Use: agricultural land: 43.2 percent (2018 estimate). Arable Land: 1.8 percent (2018 estimate); permanent crops: 0.3 percent (2018 estimate); permanent pasture: 41.1 percent (2018 estimate); forest: 31.4 percent (2018 estimate); other: 25.4 percent (2018 estimate). Irrigated Land: 7,000 square kilometers (2014). [Source: CIA World Factbook, 2023]

New Zealand has a favorable climate and soil for a large number of crops, many of which are shipped to the Northern Hemisphere. Advances in air freight, refrigerated containers, and specialized packing have made it possible to transport perishable fruits and vegetables over long distances to the United States, Europe and northeast Asia without them spoiling.

One of the consequence of the economic reforms of the 1980s is that New Zealand is now one of the few counties in the world without a subsidized agricultural industry.

After World War II New Zealanders invented a new way of turning desert into pasture land-by spreading superphosphate fertilizer by air grass spouted out where there was none before.

Agricultural Products in New Zealand

Agricultural Products: milk, beef, kiwi fruit, apples, potatoes, mutton, grapes, wheat, barley, green onions/shallots. Major crops for domestic consumption: grains, potatoes, fruits. Major crops for export: kiwifruit, pipfruit, stonefruit, onions, squash, flowers and berries. [Source: CIA World Factbook, 2023]

New Zealand is a major fruit producer. Like Chile, it produces fruit in the Southern Hemisphere summer for the Northern Hemisphere winter. Apples and pears are two important export crops.

The value of New-Zealand-produced Manuka honey increased when it was discovered that is was effective in treating wounds, ulcers and burns.

New Zealand is trying to create markets for new locally-grown fruits and vegetables such as feijoa, cape gooseberry, tamarillo, babaco, pepino and cherimoya.

Kiwi Fruit

Kiwi fruit is one of New Zealand's biggest exports. Named after the kiwi, partly because the skin of both the bird and the fruit is fuzzy, it evolved from a small, hard wild berry called the monkey peach or Chinese gooseberry which was brought to New Zealand in 1904. Alexander Allison, the father of the kiwi fruit, spent three decades pruning, grafting and carefully selecting the best plants to create the kiwi fruit that we know and love today.

Kiwi fruit grows on vines that resemble grapevines from a distance and can grow up to eight inches in a single day. The fruit itself can stay fresh for weeks in refrigerator, and for months if frozen to 0 degrees.

Kiwi fruit wines have won gold medals in international wine competitions. The "cheeky little wine" is often mistaken for Reisling. Japanese business women have selected it as an alternative to sake and whiskey which are traditionally men's drinks.

Kiwi fruit was first commercially grown in the 1960s. New Zealand now produces only a forth of the world's kiwi fruit. Much of the remainder comes from California. New Zealand-produced fruit is identifiable by the Zespri label.


About 70 percent of the occupied land in New Zealand (45 percent of the total area) is devoted to the raising of 47 million sheep, 9 million dairy and beef cattle, and 228,000 goats as well as deer and ostriches. New Zealand is also home to 12 million chickens and 400,000 pigs.

The New Zealand livestock industry began to take off in 1882 when refrigerated ships were introduced that allowed lamb to stay frozen on the three month journey from New Zealand to Britain.

These days there are more cattle and less sheep than there used to be. In 1975, there were 60 million sheep and 2 million cows. Most of the cattle are Jersey dairy cows.

New Zealand's livestock industry is centered primarily on the North Island, which is home to about half of New Zealand's territory, 70 percent of its people, 93 percent of its dairy cattle, 77 percent of its beef cattle and half of its sheep.

According to the Guinness Book of Records, the highest price every paid for a goat was US$79,000 for an Angora buck by Eliot Brown of Waipu, New Zealand in 1985.

Cattle and Cows

The worlds top exporters of beef and veal are (1988): 1) Australia, 2) W. Germany, 3) Brazil, 4) France, 5) New Zealand, 6) Ireland, 7) Argentina, 8) the Netherlands, 9) the United States, and 10) Denmark.

The worlds top exporters of red meats (pork and beef) are (1988): 1) the Netherlands, 2) Australia, 3) Denmark, 4) New Zealand, 5) West Germany.

New Zealand produces only a fraction of the world's milk but is responsible for a quarter of all international trade in dairy products such as milk powders, butter, cheese and protein products like casein. Export volume for these products tripled between 1960 and 2000.

It is not unusual for a cattle ranch to be 35,000 acres.

Cloning Cows

In August 1998, scientists in New Zealand announced that they had cloned the last surviving members of the rare Enderby Island breed of cattle. It was the first example of cloning being used to preserve an endangered species.

Enderby Island cattle developed from 100 cattle that were dropped on Enderby Island in the mid-1800s in an effort to start a ranch there. The ranchers departed but left behind their animals, who managed to survive. Over 100 years and 20 generation they developed long bodies, short legs and other traits that helped them adapt to their severe environment. The only problem is that the cows damage the island's environment. In 1992, the government killed all the animals except one female and took and preserved the sperm of 10 bulls. Survival-ensuring genetic diversity is being achieved by inseminating the cloned females with semen from the different bulls.

Sheep in New Zealand

The sheep to people ratio in New Zealand is about 12.5 to 1 (47.5 million sheep and 3.8 million people), which is down from the 1970s, when the sheep to people ratio was 20 to 1 (70 million sheep and 3.3 million people). Reason for the decline in the number of sheep include declines in lamb and wool prices and an end to sheep farm subsidies. A common bumper sticker in New Zealand in the late 1980s, when wool prices really took a dive, read, "Real Men Don't Wear Polyester."

The first sheep, a ram and a ewe, were brought to New Zealand by Captain Cook in 1773. They died without producing any surviving offspring. The fat-tailed, coarse-haired merinos that arrived in the 1830s survived and gave birth to New Zealand's wool and lamb industry.

The first merinos brought to New Zealand were raised for meat. Later, when their wool became more valuable than their meat, many shepherd started raising sheep to export their wool to Britain, where the wool was made into clothing. By the middle of the 19th century, the New Zealand economy was based on sheep and wool.

Infants are thought to benefit from the contact with sheepskins, which many New Zealanders put in cribs, strollers, and car seats.

According to the Guinness Book of Records, the largest sheep ever recorded weighed 545 pounds; the oldest one died a week before its 29th birthday; and the largest sheep litter was eight lambs. The world record for fleece is 65 pounds of wool from fleece 25 inches long (grown over 7 years).

Wool Industry

Once the world's dominate cloth-making fiber, wool now only accounts for five percent of world textile fiber market. Most wool is produced in the Southern Hemisphere and shipped to the Northern Hemisphere. Australia leads the world in production followed by Russia, New Zealand, China and Argentina. Japan is the largest importer of wool.

New Zealand sheep produce strong, crossbred wool that accounts for a forth of the world's total. Wool of this type is used in making carpets, clothing, upholstery, furnishings and blankets. About one half of New Zealand wool is used in carpeting and half in clothing.

The worlds top producers of wool are (1988): 1) Australia, 2) USSR, 3) New Zealand, 4) China, 5) Argentina.

The worlds top exporters of wool are (1988): 1) Australia, 2) New Zealand, 3) Argentina, 4) South Africa, 5) France.

In the old days buyers relied on their eyes and noses and fingers to judge the quality of wool. Now wool-testing authorities objectively test wools on the basis of fiber diameter, vegetable-matter content, and clean-wool yield. Today over 98 percent of the wool sold in auctions has been tested in this manner.隨奇ス、

Sheep Stations

Sheep and cattle ranches are called stations in Australia and New Zealand. According to the Guinness Book of Records, the world's largest sheep ranch (in terms of head count) is the 40,970-acre Lochinver Station in New Zealand. It contained 127,406 sheep on January 1, 1993.

The pioneers who opened the highland sheep stations in the Southern Alps were a tough group who often had no electricity or running water in their cabins and had to chop wood, heat water over an open fire, and wash everything by hand. "It was a hard life," one highlander told National Geographic, "but we loved it."

Sheep station owners routinely lose sheep to avalanches, foul weather and falls (but they don't have to worry about predators like wolves, coyotes and dingoes). It is not uncommon for a sheep owner to lose a third of his recently-shorn flock by freezing to death in sudden spring storm that drops five feet of snow.

Many station owners let their flocks roam free and then round them up at shearing time with border collies, helicopters and motorcycles. Small Cessna planes ar sometimes called in to locate missing flocks.

One highlander woman told National Geographic that her three-old spent so much time with sheep he once asked, "Mummy, did you also lick me when I was born?"隨呻ス・

Sheep Shearing

Whether done by hand or machine, shearing is the greatest single expense in wool production, accounting for 22 percent of the total cost. Researchers are now experimenting with a compound made from the glands of mice which weakens the fleece and allows it to be plucked by hand.隨奇ス、

Shearers are paid about US$1.50 per sheep, and a good shearer can shear about 200 sheep in a day. It is no surprise that shearers have a reputation for being strong and tough. One man at a pub told National Geographic, "Don't ever mess with a shearer, mate, you'll always come off second best."

According to the Guinness Book of Records, the world record for sheep shearing by a human is 353 lambs in nine hours by Peter Casserly of Christchurch in February 1976. The record for a machine is 805 lambs in nine hours (40.2 seconds per lamb) by a machine in Waitnahuru, New Zealand on December 1990.

Sheep Technology

"At a remote sheep station some 70 miles from Mount Cook," journalist Nina Hyde wrote in National Geographic, "Russel Emmerson is challenging synthetics head-on, literally. His goal is to breed uniform superfine wool, with computerized objective measurement of the highly heritable factors of wool diameter and fleece weight. The sheep don't know it, by their computer ear tags guide their selection for breeding programs and even open paddock gates to meet suitable mates. This way Emerson can guarantee a particular micron count instead of an average. 隨奇ス、

The University of Western Australian spent US$1 million developing a robotic sheep shearing machine. Built into the machine is a devise that can retract the blade in increments of five thousandths of an inch, enough to allow it to adjust for the animals breathing. The 1982 version of the machine could sheer an animal in three minutes about the same as a man. The ones made today are much faster.隨呻スャ

Lamb and the Middle East

New Zealanders are very fond of lamb and mutton but most of the meat from New Zealand's sheep ends up in Muslim countries where people don't eat pork, and beef is prohibitively expensive.

Most sheep are slaughtered facing Mecca using the halal method and shipped off to the Persian Gulf in converted oil tankers that are seven stories high and can carry 115,000 sheep. It takes two days just to load one of these ships.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New Zealand Tourism Board, New Zealand Herald, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Reuters, Associated Press, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN and various books and other publications.

Last updated March 2023

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