NZ dairy industry

New Zealand may be small in size, but our dairy industry is big in the world of dairy exports, being the 8th largest dairy producer globally.

With only 5 million people and around the same number of dairy cows, that leaves a lot of dairy to export, and we send it to many places. Our high quality dairy produce is New Zealand’s biggest export earner.

New Zealand’s temperate climate is well suited to a low cost, high quality grazed-pasture dairy system. The seasonal calving system that’s been a feature of the industry for more than 100 years, cleverly matches home-grown feed supply with the herd’s nutritional needs.

This seasonal calving system works with nature rather than against it, allowing the cows to access grazed pasture as their main feed source all year round.

Many of our international dairy farming customers have adopted this seasonal calving system with farmers seeing positive results, focusing milking cows to the pasture growth curve and keeping costs low.

Dairy industry

New Zealand farms just under 5 million dairy cows in over 11,000 dairy herds. These bring in about $19 billion a year to the national economy.

Dairying is spread across 1.74 million hectares of land and plays an important role in every regional economy.

Our dairy sector is highly integrated, modern, science based and innovative, and is a global leader in pastoral dairy farming.

The industry commitment to ongoing improvements is strong, covering areas from people to pasture and from animals to environmental sustainability. Scientific research, later adopted as on-farm practices, and farmer collaboration characterise the industry.

LIC is a part of that improvement ethos, with our strong commitment to research and development keeping us at the leading edge of the dairy farming industry.

Farms and cows

Under our seasonal pasture-based farm system, highly fertile, easy care, productive and profitable cows are essential. Cows are calved to match feed demand with the rapid spring pasture growth.

Spring is a busy time in New Zealand.

Across the world, our farmers are looking for the same type of cow, one that suits their grass-based system.

Most cows calve within a 12 week spring calving window, with 83% of the herd, on average, calved by week 6 of calving. That’s more than 4 million cows calved in just 6 weeks.  The national herd calving interval of 368-370 days is the shortest in the world, and it’s been at this level for many years.

High fertility:

Genetic fertility trends are positive, as are phenotypic trends. In 2019, the NZ national 6 week in-calf rate reached yet another high point after 4 years of consecutive gains. Final in-calf rate is also improving despite the average herd’s total mating length being shortened (2019 saw the shortest recorded to date at just 10.7 weeks). Another interesting trend is the move to better information gathering.  55% of herds recording on LIC’s MINDA® software now generate detailed Fertility Focus® reports, compared to  just 13% ten years ago.


Herd life of cows in New Zealand is one of the longest in the world, averaging over 4.5 lactations per cow and unlike most countries, the phenotypic trend is for increased herd life.

Production efficiency:

Production per kg/ liveweight continues to climb; modern New Zealand cows produce 50 kg milk solids more per year than the cows of a decade ago, despite being about the same size. High genetic merit cows are more profitable for farmers.

Environment and welfare:

High genetic merit animals partition more of the feed eaten into milk solids, and less into waste. This means more nitrogen is being converted into protein in cow’s milk rather than being excreted as urine or faeces. LIC has launched a HoofprintTM Index helping farmers to identify the most environmentally efficient cows. LIC International has taken the HoofprintTM Index to its overseas farmers also.

It’s not hard work all year in seasonal calving systems. After the spring rush, cows settle down to a daily rhythm of grazing and milking. At the end of the lactation the cows and farmers get to take a well-earned rest over the winter.

Herd improvement

Genetic improvement is a concept well understood not just by NZ dairy farmers, but by farmers all over the world.

Every year, to identify and breed the best cows to elites sires, New Zealand dairy farmers milk record 3.67 million cows and mate 3.59  million to elite AI genetics.

This results in a superior line of replacement calves who will enter the milking herd at 2 years of age.

Improvements in genetic gain is delivering BW$10/cow increased profit potential on farm per year.

Farmers are seeing measurable increases in on-farm performance:

  • 50 kg more milk solids per cow over the last 10 years and cow size remaining constant
  • 40% of this production efficiency is attributed to improved genetic merit
  • Improved production efficiency reduces the environmental impact per kilogram of milk solids produced
  • Genetic trends for non-production traits such as fertility, longevity, health, conformation and udder traits also continue to trend favourably

Future efforts

Historic genetic trends show NZ farm and cow performance improving and set to continue. It’s fair to say that both the NZ and other industries understand the importance of responding to a changing world, seeking new and innovative ways to create competitive resilient systems that are better now and keep improving.

NZ Industry sector initiatives such as the Dairy Tomorrow strategy reflect this effort.

LIC continues to be a part of this, with our ongoing genetic research, environmental index  and involvement in larger industry research projects such as methane trials and in leading the seven-year resilient dairy research programme.

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