Posted by: scribe9 | February 22, 2010

The milky way

This has been a nice spring and summer in northern New Zealand. Too nice. It’s been so dry that streams are drying up, cisterns are emptying, and crops aren’t growing as they should. The dairy farmers are suffering a lot. Since the cows have less to eat and drink, they’re producing less milk. Some farmers are having to feed now what they’d planned to save for later, so when fall and winter come and the feed runs out, they’ll have to sell cattle, at the same time as other dairy farmers in the same situation, driving down the price of beef.

The drought will bring down the country’s milk production, which is a big part of the economy. Dairying is huge here, and growing. There are still far more sheep than cattle—8 sheep per person, compared to a little over two cattle per person. The 5.8 million dairy cattle (a similar number are for beef) pump out enough milk to make dairying the nation’s biggest export earner, far outstripping wool, lamb and mutton. 

Dairying is growing, so more land is being logged or converted from sheep pasture. That brings ecological concerns–turning New Zealand into a giant pasture has led to slope instability, and methane from cows (mainly from their mouths, it turns out) is a major source of greenhouse gases. Some New Zealanders are appalled at the indoor methods of dairy farming–keeping cows that are milking in large barns–common on larger farms in the US.

While there are still a lot of family farms, dairying is not a fractured business. The government created a cooperative, Fonterra, that’s the biggest employer in the country and the biggest dairy exporter in the world. It ships a lot of dried milk to China, but is establishing farms for fresh milk there, too—demand in China is twice what Fonterra is now producing in New Zealand.

There seem to be dairy herds around every bend in the road, milk tankers driving in all directions, and dairy news in every paper. Is it any wonder I natter on about Jerseys, Holsteins, Ayrshires and Brown Swiss?

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