Commodity prices, especially for wool and meat, were high after the Second World War. In its heyday, between the 1950s and 1980s, the Southland A & P (agricultural and pastoral) show at the Invercargill showgrounds attracted crowds of up to 50,000.
From dairying to sheep farming
During the 20th century, many dairy farmers switched to sheep farming. In the 40 years from 1920, the ratio of dairy cows to 100 sheep shorn fell from 6.03 to 0.54 in Southland county.
Dissatisfaction with stock prices and terms offered by Ocean Beach freezing works and Southland Frozen Meat prompted Southland farmers to form their own freezing company, Alliance. It began processing at the newly built Lorneville plant near Invercargill in 1960. Alliance subsequently bought out both Ocean Beach and Southland Frozen Meat.
New farming frontiers
Farm output increased on the plains, and in the 1950s and 1960s more isolated areas were brought into production, including:
- the Upper Waiau Valley along the shores of Lakes Te Anau and Manapōuri
- the southern and eastern sides of the Tākitimu Mountains and west of Nightcaps
- a small area to the south of the Hokonui Hills
- coastal land east of Invercargill, much of it swamp.
Wheat was grown extensively during the years of guaranteed prices between the 1930s and 1980s, with production peaking at 100,000 tonnes per year in the 1980s. It has not been significant since then.
Downturn and upturn
More productive sheep
Sheep numbers in Southland dipped from 9 million in 1985 to 4 million in 2012. But productivity per sheep increased: in the early 2000s, farmers were consistently achieving 145% lambing rates (the ratio of births per ewe).
In the 2010s Alliance ran works at Lorneville, Makarewa and Mataura. Blue Sky Meats operated a plant at Morton Mains, and South Pacific Meats had one at Awarua.
Rabbit infestation was a problem throughout Southland in the 1940s, and again in the 1990s. But Southland was not as hard hit as other regions, as most rabbits did not survive the cold, wet winters.
White gold: the dairy boom
In 1977 only three dairy factories were still open, others being victims of outdated technology and the decline in dairy numbers. After the factories at Tisbury and Mataura closed in 1978 and 1981, farmers sent their milk to the one remaining plant at Edendale, now owned by the Southland Dairy Co-operative.
But from the early 1990s, Southland experienced a boom in dairying as North Island dairy farmers flocked south, drawn by cheaper land prices and the long growing and milking season.
This move coincided with rapidly rising international prices for milk, milk products, cheeses and butter – in sharp contrast to prices for wool, beef and sheep meat, which remained static or fell.
Between 1990 and 1998, the Edendale factory doubled its capacity, expanding to produce whole-milk powder, cheese, casein and lactose. In the 2010s the company had 600 employees – one of Southland’s biggest payrolls. A new milk-processing plant opened at Awarua in 2008.
In the early 2000s the average Southland herd size was 472 cows – close to four times that before the 1990s. Herds produced an average of 1.95 million litres of milk. In 2012 Southland had more than 670,000 dairy cows, compared with 50,000 in 1992.
In 2013, 17.0% of Southlanders worked in occupations associated with farming and fisheries, compared with the national average of 5.7%.