Ohinemuri Regional History Journal 52, September 2008

(by Gray Townshend, Ngatea)

A hundred years of change in the way we milk cows.

From the very beginnings of farming on the Hauraki Plains, dairying has been the predominant land use. A recent visit to a large rotary dairy complex milking over 950 cows seemed a call for some recording of the progress of the milking shed from the early days.

Following the clearance of the extensive Kahikatea forests of the Plains, farming was initially confined to the land along the riverbanks mostly the Waihou, and to a lesser extent the Piako. This was because there were no roads onto the Hauraki swamp, but there was extensive river transport available. After the Lands and Survey Department went to work under the provisions of the Hauraki Plains Act 1908, and then the Public Works Department under the Waihou and Ohinemuri Rivers Improvement Scheme, there was rapid farming expansion fuelled in part by an over optimistic belief that the Hauraki Plains were "so fertile they would never need topdressing".

There were farms along the Waihou's banks in Netherton from probably the late 1880's, and Bagnall Brothers developed a large subdivision at Turua pre-World War One. Their Huirau Road farm featured a large shed of over 50 headbails, though information on whether it had milking machines is hard to establish. Certainly pre-1914 the majority of cows were milked by hand, with wives and school age children often pressed into the slow and laborious hand milking process. Many dairies shed floors were manuka fascines, as aggregate for making concrete was hard to come by.

After 1918, progress was more rapid, and dairying expanded greatly. The number of cowsheds of this era grew like mushrooms. This was before electricity was reticulated, so the standard layout provided in the bail area the "walk through" shed with doors in front of the cows. Separate "engine rooms" for the milking plant and the benzene or kerosene engines were mandatory. Benzine engines were probably more popular for their quick starting, but kerosene fuelled units were safer, even though some required the lighting of a blowlamp to heat the "hot bulb" igniter (there were no magnetos or spark plugs) to red heat before the engine could be started.

Current OSH inspectors would be horrified by the countershafts, pulleys and flat belts driving the vacuum pump, which usually looked like a small horizontal steam engine. There were many accidents and some fatalities from getting clothing or hair caught in the belting. In dry weather the belts would slip, calling for the setting on fire of an old inflation rubber to drip some burning rubber on to the belt and stop the slippage.

One of the early milking sheds

One of the early milking sheds. Note the milker sitting on a stool and the cow rear leg roped back.

Dairy Farming — 1908 to 2008
Ohinemuri Regional History Journal 52, September 2008
One of the early milking sheds

Above the milk pipe line, "automatic pulsators" looking like a small vacuum powered steam engine driving a crankwheel operated the pulsator slides, and at half speed the releaser pulsator. Pulsation speed could be changed by an adjustable valve, and on frosty mornings it was usually necessary to pour boiling water over the vacuum cylinder to get some movement.

The great majority of farms supplied cream, so the standard milkroom layout had a "two chamber spit releaser" dropping the milk into a storage vat, usually about 80 – 90 litre capacity, and during milking when the vat was approaching full, the separator would be started. Two spouts from the separator discharged cream into a can, and skim milk into a funnel connected to the skim milk pump which sent it to the farm piggery.

After milking, the plant was cleaned by sucking through water with caustic soda as near boiling as could be achieved. The water was caught and used to clean the separator, and other utensils. The milking area floor was washed down with buckets and yard broom, and the cowpats in the yard were picked up with a square mouthed shovel and tossed into a high- sided sledge just over the yard rail for later spreading round the paddocks.

The arrival of electricity brought vee-belt drives and smaller reciprocating and later rotary vacuum pumps in place of the old dangerous flat belts. Electric water heaters replaced the range of old wood burning or oil burning units from the late 20's to the mid 30's. An annual visit to the Waikato Winter Show was a must, to view among other things the wide range of available milking machines displayed. Now consigned to history are the Gane, Ridd, Wallace, L.K.G., G.V.B. Vaculac, Newton King and several other brands, all offering cleaner quicker milking. A monthly farm chore was reversing, and the second time round replacing the tubular rubber teat cup liners.

Milking however was still a slow process, with one set of teat-cups for each pair of bails, and a shed milking sixty or more cows was normally considered a two man unit with the owner and a farmhand, because cows were individually brought into the bail, back roped (later with a chain), and leg roped. A few squirts of milk were drawn to "start the let down" and the cups applied. When the cups were swung across to the opposite bail the milker then took the stool and bucket for the "stripping" or "double stripping" to get the last drop. There was usually time to dry one's hands and roll a cigarette or two.

Mastitis was a continuing and intractable problem. Muddy conditions meant the need to wash buckets and cloths, absolute breeding grounds for bacteria to thrive. No effective treatment was available, the much used treatment being rubbing Safonia, a cresyl based fluid, on the udder skin to stimulate blood flow in the udder.

The 1940s post-war, saw the arrival of the "internal race" shed, with gates in front of the cow and a sheltered walkway for the cows out to the farm. Provision of the Hauraki Plains County's water supply provided enough water for the installation of centrifugal wash down pumps, enabling much better cleaning of dairy premises, and the arrival of detergents made for better plant cleanliness.

Wartime driven growth of cheese factories made milk supply more attractive, and cream supply was by the mid 1950s quite limited. The milk had to be cooled before going into the 90-litre milk cans and the water from the milk cooler supplied tepid clean water for teat washing, this was piped to each bail. Most of this water went into a holding tank from which a centrifugal pump and hose provided adequate water for much higher standards of hygiene

Shortly after the Second World War penicillin became available for veterinary use, and this gave at last an effective treatment for mastitis. Up till this time mastitis outbreaks caused extensive economic loss, nearly every herd including a number of "three teaters". Injectable minerals (calcium, magnesium and copper) gave effective treatments for milk fever, staggers, and peat scours.

A national tour about 1949 by Professor W. E. Petersen of the U.S.A. was promoted by the Department of Agriculture and the New Zealand Dairy Board at a series of farmers' meetings to convince them that the practice of "starting" and "hand stripping" at each end of the milking process was a waste of time, and farmers were prompt to accept this new gospel !! Non-stripping hastened the fitting of two rather than a single set of cups for each pair of bails. The "farm boy" was now only needed in the herd size range of 100 cows and over. But with milking more cows per man, the effort of stooping to milk became arduous.

In the 1950's Ruakura took up research on milking plants, producing at first the Ruakura milk flow indicator, an important aid following the end of hand stripping; prior to that testing the temperature of the dropper tube against the cheek was the indicator. The Ruakura milking machine followed.

By the late 1950s the first stoopless milking sheds were being constructed. On the Plains because of the high water tables affecting pit excavation, the first constructed were set up with the cows walking up and down ramps. However development of the venturi for pit drainage changed that and most sheds built post 1960 had the cows walking through on ground level and the milkers in a pit. With increasing herd size, more thought was given to "cow flow". A temporary, but at the time quite serious problem was stray electrical currents passing through the machines, the electric low voltage shocks upsetting the cows and was overcome by electrically linking shed steelwork and floor reinforcement.

The first rotary milking shed, designed by Mr Merv Hicks of Eltham, was built about 1970, and with the increasing tendency to farm amalgamations became the preferred option for larger herds, despite their higher cost. Two different systems the Turnstyle based on the Hicks' plan, and the Waikato-developed Ardco with cows in tandem, competed in the market; after 20-odd years the latter is being phased out, largely because the cows appear more at ease on the turnstyle.

A modern

A modern "herringbone" type milking shed which can milk up to 350- 400 cows in an hour.

Dairy Farming — 1908 to 2008
Ohinemuri Regional History Journal 52, September 2008
A modern "herringbone" type milking shed

The 1980s rotaries were mostly for 24 to 40 on the platform, but current needs are for rotaries of 50 to 80 being milked each rotation. In 2008 at least one rotary on the Hauraki Plains milks over 1000 cows, and there are a number in the 800 to 1000 herd size. The scope and size of these larger rotaries impresses with stainless steel piping and fittings of similar size to that seen in the cheese making dairy factories of the 1950s.

With current environmental requirements, safe disposal of the effluent from these larger sheds requires extensive paddock irrigation systems. For the majority of farms however, the stoopless herringbone shed, markedly improved from the early styles still performs well at significantly lower cost.

As an interesting aside, my first farm of 55 acres in Netherton bought in June, 1952, as a going concern, cost 8,710 pounds or $17,400. It was a well developed dairy unit with 25-year-old house, renovated milking shed, 45 in-calf cows, a good tractor and range of implements. Current levels of sale price of dairy farms in Netherton over recent months is at a level where $17,400 is not enough to buy one single acre of land without any stock and plant!!!