Agricultural Innovation in the Waikato

Technology has played a vital role in the development of agriculture in New Zealand, and some key innovations with wide ranging influence have been born right here in the Waikato:

Herringbone Shed
Stoopless milking was a concept generating a lot of interest at the end of the forties and early fifties. The aim was to elevate the cow above the milker to avoid back bending. In 1952 Mr Ron Sharp, a farmer from Waikato, conceived the herringbone design and converted his existing shed creating a milking system which combined stoopless milking with fast processing of the cows which were brought into the shed in groups. The new design allowed more cows to be milked with the same labour or for a labour unit to be dispensed with, effectively halving milking times. The name ‘herringbone’ refers to the angle the cows are milked on.
With the labour shortages of the fifties, the time and effort saved by the herringbone system meant it became the industry standard. The idea quickly caught on and its adoption was given impetus by MasseyCollege where, after extensive study, the College's milking shed was converted in 1955. Productivity improvements through new shed design have been a major contributor to the increased size of herds. In 1980 the average herd size was 126, it is now 220 cows, with no increase in labour units.

Electric Fence
The idea of rationing grass, together with hay and silage, to milking cows during winter was born at MasseyCollege in June 1938. The electric fence controller, just introduced from the USA, made possible the rationing of the herd as a whole, by enclosing them daily on a determined area of fresh grass.
The 1940s were a time of steadily diminishing farm labour, and the shortage of fencing wire and high cost of timber made a labour and cost-saving device such as the electric fence extremely attractive. However it was not until the law was relaxed in 1961making it legal to power electric fences from mains instead of batteries that the electric fence industry boomed.
Doug Phillips invented the ‘unshortable’ fence while working as a scientist at Ruakura Agricultural Research Centre in the 1950s. Early electric fences suffered from the voltage leaking away through contact with grass, however Doug’s invention avoided this by first charging up a ‘capacitor’ to jerk the full voltage on the wire.
In the 1960s Bill Gallagher asked Owen Williamson of Hamilton to help with the problem of fences shorting out. Owen designed an unshortable electric fence using several totally different principles. His high energy / very short pulse principle is still in use today in all effective mains powered fence energizers.
Bill Gallagher made his first electric fences using a car battery and fuel ignition cell. By 1964 Gallagher Engineering had made over 20,000 electric fence units, and today sell energizers all over the world, and are involved in designing fencing systems for large animals, prison systems, and even the military.

Peat
Raw peat is partially decomposed dead plant material – it is not mineral soil. The Waikato peat lands began to form 18,000 years ago when the WaikatoRiver left its course to the Firth of Thames and entered HamiltonBasin. Its course kept changing, creating low wet areas and ponds that remained after the river finally settled into the path it travels today. Over thousands of years peat was formed from the plants that grew and died but didn’t decompose because of waterlogged conditions and lack of oxygen.
Most farmers who worked on peat lived there and built their houses on peat. Walking on peat is like walking on a big sponge, and their houses also sank in to the peat. Early on suitable machinery was not available to work on peat. Drains could be dug by hand, but horses could not pull ploughs as they would sink up to their bellies.
Farmers learned to drive long poles down into the peat to support their houses or ‘float’ them on large pads of concrete. More wheels were put on tractors so they would not sink. Vaughan Jones invented a spinner drain digger for making drains to remove surface water and improved the chisel plough, a plough that could be more easily pulled through the peat and mix the lime in deeper. JD Wallace built tractors with larger and wider tracks to travel in top of the peat. He learned from his father the ‘hump and hollow’ method of contouring paddocks, used in Scotland to drain surface water.
Farmers started using the rotary hoe to chop up the top layers of peat. The spinning action of the hoe helped push the tractor along. IL Elliot, FB Thompson and Frank van der Elst, scientists from Rukuhia Soil Research Station and Ruakura Research Centre did early work to improve drainage methods and concentrated in fertilizer and trace elements to be added to peat to increase plant growth.
Most bought peat land because it was cheap. Some returning soldiers were given peat land. Many gave up and just walked off. The farmers who persevered worked together with scientists to win the struggle to make peat profitable farm land. Today peat land is some of the most valuable and productive farm land in New Zealand. 800 farms are on peat in the Waikato region.