August 29, 2014

Agricultural history in New Zealand. Herd testers. Introduction

By Dr Clive Dalton

Find the best cows
The early dairy farmers in New Zealand soon wanted to find out which were their best cows, so weighing each cow’s milk and then taking a sample for a butterfat test was the obvious way to do this, as butter was the main export.  This was called ‘herd testing’ and got underway in 1909.

Skimming stations
Farmers initially sent milk to ‘skimming stations’ where the cream was ‘skimmed off’ after it had been allowed to settle, and payment was made on the ‘butterfat’ content. The skimmed milk was taken back home to feed pigs, which were a major part of farm income. 

With the invention of the milk separator in Scandinavia, its arrival in New Zealand brought about a major change, as farmers only needed to take the separated cream to the many local dairy factories in each area, and the skim stayed at home. 

Pedigree herds 
 Knowing which were the best cows was the start of genetic improvement, as the best cows could become the mothers of future progeny when mated to the best bulls available – which at that time were from ‘pedigree’ herds. 
So pedigree breeders drove the demand for herd testing, but genetic improvement was in a very primitive stage in those early days.
Photo shows the tester reading a butyrometer tube in the Gerber butterfat test.

Government assistance
The NZ government was keen to encourage this genetic improvement in pedigree herds, as farmers knew the ancestry of each animal, and these were assumed to have the best genetics on which to base herd improvement.  All the non-pedigree farmers were expected to use pedigree bulls if they wanted to improve their herds.

Government 'cow testing service'
So in 1909 the NZ Department of Agriculture supported a group of pedigree breeders in the Wairarapa to start a ‘cow testing service’, which allowed them to send a limited number of milk samples to government labs to be tested for butterfat.  This was seen as such a valuable innovation and so successful, that ‘Herd Testing Associations’ were set up by farmers with non-pedigree cows, while the Department of Agriculture continued testing milk from pedigree herds.  

Herd improvement associations
By1926 eight associations had been formed, with 105,227 cows tested and by 1929; there were 29 Herd Testing Associations throughout the country. Administration was then simplified by forming them into six regional ‘Herd Improvement Associations’ (HIAs).

Sir Arthur Ward
Herd testing raced ahead, driven by pioneers like Arthur (later Sir Arthur) Ward who as a cost accountant from UK, modified Burroughs’s adding machines, he said with No 8 wire, for the Auckland Herd Improvement Association Office in Hamilton to speed up data processing. Prior to the machines arriving, an army of women added everything up longhand.

But the success of the whole operation depended on the staff in the field, with a 25-26 day round of farms in each local group, to record milk weight and sample it for butterfat content from each cow.

Ten and 25-pound Sterling Poms 
Young herd testers hard at work - herringbone shed
 Initially herd testing attracted farmers’ sons and young folk wanting to get into farming - but these were not enough.  So in the 1950s and 1960s, through advertisements in the British and Irish farming papers (Farmers Weekly, Irish Farmers Weekly and Farmer and Stockbreeder), a whole range of young men and women arrived in New Zealand.    

Many arrived as ‘ten or twenty-five pound Poms’ as they were called, having paid only a small part of the cost of their passage, with a bond to stay for two years if they didn’t stay in farming, or refund the cost paid for the by the NZ government.  They all arrived by boat in Wellington, and then faced the challenge of New Zealand Railways overnight limited 'express' to Frankton Junction.

 Five weeks at sea
The story of how they saw the adverts, had interviews and medical checks, said farewell to their families, and then enjoyed the five-week sea voyage to New Zealand, as well as their reception on arrival, is told on the following blog posts from interviews I did with them in 2004.  This was for an exhibition I helped to arrange at the Waikato Museum of Art and History in Hamilton. 

Revisited memories
I have recently talked to them again about their herd testing days, and to get more of their memories, which are still very vivid.  Many said that their herd testing days, moving around farms, staying with a different farmer’s family every night were some of the happiest days of their lives. 

Lifelong friends
They all made lifelong friends with farmers and with fellow testers, and they certainly made a major contribution to the genetic improvement of New Zealand’s dairy cattle, because without herd testing, the outstanding gains in genetics through the widespread use of Artificial Insemination could not have been made. 

Herd testing drove AI genetic improvement
In fact, herd testing highlighted and drove the need to find top bulls, and forced development of ways to spread their genetics around the industry.  Herd testing was the driver of Artificial Insemination (AI) or Artificial Breeding (AB) as it was known in New Zealand (Dalton and Rumble 1985).

And herd testing is still the foundation of herd improvement, but using technology, which would be beyond the imagination of the many immigrant herd testers of the 1950s and 1960s arriving in New Zealand from the northern hemisphere after five weeks at sea for a life beyond their imagination.

Further reading
Stitchbury, G (1994).  Better dairy farming - the Consulting Officer Service.
 Lab coats to gum boots. NZ Society of Animal Production. Occasional Publication No 13, 55-72.
 Editor: G.H. Davis.

Dalton, D.C., Rumble, Claire. (1985)
50 years of artificial insemination and herd improvement in New Zealand.
Published by the Auckland Livestock Improvement Association.
ISBN: 0-473-00294-9
See for more details on this blogsite.
Bayly, Clare. (2009)
100 Years of Herd Testing 1909-2009
Published by Livestock Improvement Corporation, Newstead, Hamilton.
ISBN:  978-0-473-15126-3

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