In the years after the Second World War, prices for farm products rose, and there was increasing technological innovation and scientific agricultural research. The 1950s and 1960s were a buoyant time for farmers, as they developed their land, increased stock numbers, improved livestock productivity and enjoyed new prosperity.
Spreading superphosphate fertiliser, pasture seed and poisoned bait from aircraft was a significant technological breakthrough in pastoral farming. Aerial topdressing enabled farmers in hill country to get fertiliser and seed onto places where the natural fertility had declined and pasture was reverting to weeds and scrub.
Experiments in aerial topdressing took place in 1948 and commercial operation began in 1949. By the mid-1950s, 400,000 tonnes of fertiliser was spread annually by air, and by 1982 this had increased to over 1 million tonnes.
Aerial drops of poisoned bait were crucial in controlling rabbit numbers. By the mid-1950s there was a spectacular increase in production in areas that had previously been overrun by the pest.
As overseas economies grew after the Second World War, markets opened up for New Zealand’s agricultural products. Rising prices and better returns gave farmers capital to invest in fertiliser, seed and new machinery. Farmers re-cleared thousands of acres of land that had reverted to scrub and weeds, such as gorse, and converted it back to pasture.
Between 1950 and 1960 sheep numbers rose by 40%, the value of wool exports increased by 37%, and frozen meat by 183%. Dairy cow numbers remained static, but rising overseas prices meant that export returns for dairy products increased by 55%. In 1955, 95.6% of New Zealand’s income came from products grown on its pastures.
By the early 1950s, the Department of Agriculture and the Grasslands Division of the DSIR had adopted Bruce Levy’s ideas of grassland farming on a grand scale. They bred new grass and legume species, experimented with intensive grazing (running more stock per hectare), and took their message directly to farmers through field days and farm consultants. By the 1970s about 50% of New Zealand’s land area had been converted to grassland.
Traditionally, sheep and cattle were bred according to an idealised breed type. When geneticists began measuring the heritability of factors such as wool weights in sheep, weight gain in beef cattle and milk production in dairy cattle, they were able to give farmers clear guidelines on how to improve the productivity of their stock.
New breeds of sheep, such as the Perendale, Drysdale and Coopworth, were developed for particular environments. Cattle breeds from Europe were imported to improve the traditional Angus and Hereford beef breeds.
In the dairy industry in the early 1950s, there was a shift away from collecting only cream from farms to collecting whole milk. This encouraged farmers to change from Jersey cows, which had been favoured because their milk had a high fat content, to Friesian cows, which produce more milk.
Cereal cropping remained an important feature of farm production, particularly in Canterbury, but very little was exported. Wheat remained the most important crop, but the amount grown fluctuated from season to season, depending on prices.
The area sown in oats declined as horses were replaced by machinery. In 1950 nearly 52,000 hectares were sown, but this had dropped to 18,600 by 1980.
Barley became an increasingly popular crop, and some malting barley was exported, depending on supply and demand in the international market.
Although most cereal crops were grown for local consumption, some were exported. Peas, and grass and clover seed, had been grown for export in the 19th century, and this continued throughout the 20th century.
In the 1950s vegetables began to be grown for processing. In 1950 exports of canned and frozen vegetables earned the country about $876,000. By 1980 this had increased to over $6 million.
Crises and subsidies
New Zealand’s dependence on wool, meat, butter and cheese was a potential economic weakness. In 1960 wool earned one-third of the country’s export income. In 1966/67 wool prices fell sharply – by 40% – and, although they later recovered, it was the start of a gradual decline that continued into the 21st century.
In 1973 the first international oil shock increased fuel costs, which affected transportation and production costs. Also in 1973, Britain entered the European Economic Community and, although New Zealand had negotiated secure access to the British market for their cheese and butter, earlier trade agreements covering other New Zealand products became void.
The government’s solution to rising costs and falling prices was to produce more. In 1977 it introduced the Livestock Incentive Scheme to encourage farmers to keep more stock. The following year it introduced a raft of subsidies and production incentives, including Land Development Encouragement Loans, which provided farmers with low-interest loans to develop unproductive, and often marginal, land. In some parts of the North Island, land that had reverted to scrub was cleared for the fourth time since it had originally been cleared 100 years earlier.
In the South Island, thousands of hectares of high country were oversown with pasture seed for the first time in their history. Subsidies were introduced for superphosphate and lime – superphosphate use peaked at 3.4 million tonnes in 1982. The supplementary minimum prices scheme guaranteed farmers price stability for pastoral products, despite their declining value overseas.
Stock numbers increased, with sheep numbers peaking at over 70 million in 1982. Between 1975 and 1985, wool exports increased by 45% and meat exports by 24%.