Postwar prosperity in the New Zealand dairy industry meant a lot of farmers here had cash to invest in new machinery. In an era when the motorcar was becoming more common, and households were becoming mechanised with washing machines and fridges, farmers were actively looking for the latest technology to save them time and money. As a result, New Zealand’s dairy industry became the most efficient and modern in the world. This hunger for mechanisation meant that cowsheds, toolsheds, woolsheds and every rural corner of New Zealand were glowing and buzzing with inventive individuals who would change the worldwide dairy industry forever.
The government had its hand in this push for mechanisation as well. With the 1952 Dairy Industry Act, the Department of Agriculture demanded higher quality and more hygienic dairy products and processes, and strongly encouraged Kiwi farmers to upgrade their milking premises.
The design of the dairy shed, or parlour, was the most basic and crucial thing to get right. The evolution of dairy practice had seen the simple ‘back-out’ shed give way to the ‘walk-through’ shed in the early part of the twentieth century. Each milker could milk around 42 cows per hour in a walk-through parlour, but it was back-breaking work bending to attach the machines to the cow’s teats, so the dairy world was hungry for an alternative. Farmers were constantly experimenting with the use of platforms, pits, and whatever else they could think of – but nothing caught on.
Ron Sharp (b. 1919, d. 2004) was a dairy farmer near Gordonton, north of Hamilton. He combined the idea of a ‘pit parlour’, where the farmer stood with the cow’s teats above waist height, with the angle parking he’d seen in the main street of Hamilton – and came up with the herringbone shed. If you’ve ever been to a dairy farm you’ll know what I’m talking about because Sharp’s invention is now the standard in dairy sheds worldwide.
A long central pit is flanked by two rows of ‘bails’ – parking spaces for the cows. The cows enter the bails in batches and the farmer walks up and down the pit, attaching the cups to the teats (and keeping an eye out for the tell-tale lift of a cow’s tail). When one batch is finished, they are released out the opposite end of the shed and the next batch takes its place. Now one person could milk 75 cows per hour and the maximum practical herd size for a family farm increased from 100 to 400 plus.
There are tales of the odd herringbone-style shed having popped up before this time in Australia, but these were isolated and, unlike Sharp’s design, they didn’t cause a sea change in the dairy industry. Sharp’s idea spread like wildfire. By the mid 1960s, 70 per cent of new parlours were herringbone style – and not just here, but in Australia and the UK and all over the dairying world. By 1972 half of all farms in New Zealand used the new herringbone design and by the early 1980s it was in over 80 per cent of milking sheds, where it stayed until another New Zealand shed design became popular.
The next iteration in milking shed design was the rotary shed. As early as the 1930s an American had designed the ‘Rotolactor’, which was a massive construction with room for 50 cows on a rotating platform. Its size and expense meant it was only practical for very large herds and it never caught on, until a New Zealander took the rotating platform idea and invented a simple version that literally revolutionised the industry.
In 1967 Eltham farmer Merv Hicks was milking his herd in an old walk-through shed when a dairy inspector gave him two years to upgrade or shut down. Hicks wasn’t going to build a herringbone shed because he’d observed that the close proximity of the cows could make them antsy. He began to think of ways to keep the cows separate, and came up with his Turn-Style rotary shed.
An engineer mate agreed to build it for him; and 3000 of New Zealand’s brand new ‘dollars’ later, on 2 September 1969, Hicks’ cows took the new Turn-Style shed for a spin.
Hicks’ major innovation, which allowed a much simpler shed and cheaper construction, was to have the cows walk forwards onto the rotating platform, then backwards off the platform after a full turn. Turns out the cows didn’t mind the backing, and yes, they were immediately calmer than in a herringbone shed.
Hicks set up a company and built thousands of Turn-Style sheds over the next 20 years, then he sold the patents to international dairy giant DeLaval, who sells them internationally.
Today over 40 per cent of New Zealand’s dairy herd are milked in rotary sheds – and that’s a huge chunk of New Zealand’s GDP. More than that, now the whole world knows that the 20th century’s two major advances in dairy technology – the rotary and herringbone parlours – come from New Zealand. It’s a good look, and it’s all thanks to Hicks and Sharp. If you want to see the original herringbone shed, it still stands near Taupiri and you can make a pilgrimage.
If you want to see Merv Hicks, you’ll have to track him down on the Tauranga kiwifruit orchard he bought when he sold up the farm. Hicks was given a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Dairy Awards in 2004, while Sharp was honoured with an ONZM in the 2000 Queen’s Birthday Honours.