Dairy farming began in New Zealand in 1814 when missionary Samuel Marsden landed in the Bay of Islands bringing with him some shorthorn cows and a breeding bull – gifts presented by the then Australian Governor Lachlan Macquarie.
Fast forward a couple of centuries, and while our dairy sector might not be top of mind for Kiwis when we consider what we are good at, our dairy rates better than the rest.
DairyNZ’s Dr Jenny Jago says it is an uplifting experience when she represents New Zealand farmers at international conferences.
“New Zealand dairy is recognised very much as a global leader. Our successful, profitable and environmentally aware Kiwi dairy farmers are a source of wonder as one of the few farming economies operating in a free market.
“Most Kiwi farmers are hard-wired to problem solve. They care, want to know, and want to make dairy farming the most sustainable land use there is in New Zealand, and in the world for that matter,” she says.
“Already New Zealand leads the world in sustainable, nutrient-dense dairy products. We are 64 percent more emissions-efficient than the global average. In fact, if a litre of our milk was flown to Ireland, the next most efficient country, it would still record a lower emissions profile.
“And, we intend staying ahead of the pack.”
Dr Jago, who is a strategy and investment leader at DairyNZ specialising in farm performance, says she often encounters dairy leaders of other countries who are impressed New Zealand farmers can have healthy, productive dairy cows when, predominantly, they are fed only grass – supplemented when needed with crops, such as maize, often grown on the farm.
“Among these world dairy leaders are hands-on farmers, agri-business specialists and scientists. They come from countries with dairy systems that tend to house cows in barns for most, if not all, of the year and they are heavily reliant on brought in feeds and other supplements.
“They marvel that our cows live mostly outdoors, doing what cows do naturally, and grazing fresh grass – and that despite not being fed grains and supplements, they’re strong and healthy, producing good volumes of milk. They’re also impressed with the fertility of our dairy cows which boast in-calf rates that are well above other countries.”
Dr Jago adds that the international dairy leaders also admire the ingenuity of New Zealand dairy farming which fits productive, profitable farm systems into the natural environment.
“Among other challenges, this means our farmers have to deal with diverse weather conditions, and then there are the different climate zones throughout the country that dairy must adapt to, as well as different soil types, land contours, predators and pests, both insect and plant.
“Internationally, dairy leaders also recognise that Kiwi farmers are leading the way in lowering dairy’s environmental footprint. With our pastoral farming they appreciate farmers need to fence off waterways to keep animals out. They applaud that our farmers have done this at this voluntarily, and that they have also planted riparian strips to help filter out the nutrients that farmers anywhere need to manage.”
Beyond the farm gate, New Zealand’s story of dairy innovation is also world-leading.
In the year ended June, our dairy products were exported to more than 140 countries, earning us $18.1 billion in the process.
While the milk powder that makes up New Zealand’s biggest dairy export is a Kiwi food technology success story where the proof is in our milk-drying expertise, there is equal innovation in the production of a host of our other sought-after dairy foods. Along with cheeses, yoghurts and ice cream, our butter is better thanks to our innovation – and Australia thinks so too, currently being one of the biggest importers of New Zealand butter and cheese.
Not so widely known will be what is often called ‘pink gold’. This is lactoferrin, a high-value dairy protein developed by Fonterra. It is extracted from milk and used in nutritional products ranging from infant formula to yoghurts.
Gin is an especially popular drink this summer. Boutique gin-makers, in particular, are pleasing palates with creative blends where dairy is the ‘secret’ ingredient. This grass-to-glass comes through the sweet whey, a by-product of cheese-making, that is then fermented to produce ethanol which goes to form the basis of gin.
In the medical world, milk derivatives are also playing significant roles. There is the surprise of lactose being an active ingredient in asthma medications. For acne-prone teenagers there is help available in skin preparations that contain milk proteins.
New Zealand dairy – definitely it is a sustainable source of premium nutrition that is beyond compare. But increasingly, it is the subject of ‘who knew that?’ conversations too.
Senior Communications and Media Specialist
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