The changing face of the NZ cow shed

From the vault:

Gordonton farmer Alan Sharp looks back at how cowsheds in New Zealand have developed over the last century. His father Ron developed what today is recognised as the first herringbone cowshed.

Today our local dairy farmers are spoilt for choice, as nearly all of the world’s top dairy designs and machinery are being manufactured and supported in New Zealand. We see large New Zealand companies exporting to the world, and global company DeLaval choosing to headquarter their Rotary Cowshed Division in New Zealand.

That was not the case just 60 years ago, and even more so back in 1918 when my grandfather, James Sharp patented a very simple cow bail door opener for the walk-through cowshed.

Photo of James Sharp patent
The patent for James Sharp

The dairy scene was slowly coming right after the privations of World War I, but then the 1930s depression hit. Cash got extremely tight, consumption dropped, and most engineered products became beyond the pocket of the average cocky. Then as light started appearing at the end of the tunnel, New Zealand found herself back into yet another world war.

Special legislation was passed controlling production and supply, with the focus being directed at the war effort, and rationing for all at home. Contracts entered into to feed the Allies rolled over through the late 1940s and into the early 1950s. By then prices to the New Zealand producer were improving, but much capital was required to provide for the Rehab settlement of returned servicemen.

While cash was starting to free up, the availability of manufactured building supplies and machinery was a different story. When the Sharps obtained a new IHC 45 Hay Bailer they got Snow Ruck (of the Gordonton Garage) to make a hay bale elevator by welding together Australian Y fencing standards (‘Waratahs’) and water pipe. Timber and river sand were relatively cheap, but bags of cement and steel were not.

By 1952 progress was being made. Rehab farms and families added a new dimension to their rural communities, production started to increase, and with it cash flow. The Dairy Division of the Department of Agriculture, and the NZ Dairy Board, had started a move to upgrade and up-skill the Dairy Industry. Meetings were sponsored up and down the country, with key-note speakers, and the Dairy Division set about bringing up to date the 40-year-old Dairy Industry regulations. They wanted clean and open cowsheds that let the sunlight in, and easy-clean concrete yards for the cows to wait on.

For over 30 years the basic walk-through cowshed, with all its local refinements, had proved its worth both in New Zealand and Australia. There had also been many and varied ‘unique’ designs, but none had gained even a local following. The walk-though was the cowshed of choice, despite the milker having to bend down to attend to each cow, at least four times per milking. That’s over 2,400 times per cow per season!

But that was all about to change in the 1952/1953 dairying season.

About 1950 the Dairy Division, under WG Batt in Hamilton, set about producing a new Dairy Industry Act for Parliament to pass (1952), and designing a ‘Tandem’ platform cowshed, using only one elevated platform, housed in the traditional, open-fronted, cowshed with an internal race exit. In 1952 Mr CG Prevost of Manurewa gave the Division the opportunity to showcase such a shed, “…that would provide an example to New Zealand dairying…”.

The Rotolactor

At the same time a 1930s US-designed ‘Rotolactor’ cowshed was being commissioned in Menangle, Australia. And in Gordonton, Ron Sharp built a double platform, angle-parked, batch-milking cow shed, that would become known as a Herringbone. Still other farmers continued to experiment with the first forms of stoop-less milking in New Zealand, variously referred to as a pit, race, or chute sheds, where batches of cows stood single file. Reported upon as early as 1938, the designs never gained a great following.

History shows that the herringbone was to become the dairy farmers’ preferred choice. In New Zealand, by 1965, 69% of new sheds, and 57% of conversions, were of the herringbone design. Each year, thousands were being built around the world, and even in countries like the UK, where cows were winter-housed and barn-milked, by the early 1980’s nearly 68% of the Milk Marketing Board’s milk was collected from herringbone cowsheds.

In the race to keep up with the compounding milk flow rates that the herringbone created, many of the smaller milking plant manufacturers fell by the wayside. Ruakura Dairy Physicist Doug Phillips is on record as saying that when he started to test the NZ milking plant options, there were upwards of 40 branded milking plants, but many proved to have design faults that made them almost impossible to sterilize.

So Ruakura set out, through trial and error, to make a practical and affordable milking plant. The “Ruakura Milker” was released to the market in 1955, and soon there were just a handful of leading brands making plant that could handle the herringbone’s flow rates, meet the dairy regulations, and be kind on the cows’ udders in the process.

To this day, the simplicity of the herringbone has its place on the compact family dairy farm, but the large herd farms now have tried and proven rotary design sheds to call upon. These sheds have evolved, starting with the initiative of Merv Hicks in Taranaki, who in the 1968/69 season commissioned his own ‘Turnstile’ design, which is a walk-on and back-off rotary cowshed.

In 1999 some Waikato farmers approached the Prime Minister’s Department, and in the June 2000 Queen’s Birthday Honours, Ronald John Sharp [1919 – 2004] was awarded an ONZM, “For services to Dairying”.


Land on the west side of the Whitikahu Road intersection at Gordonton has been farmed by members of the Sharp family since 1906. Brothers James and Alexander came first, and were joined by their parents William and Helen, in September that year, after their Pukekohe East farm was sold.

  • For more information, email as there are still stories to be collected about the stoop-less milking pioneers, even though many first-hand accounts have now gone to the grave.

Published on Number 8 Network in January 2012

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Number 8 Network - a community website for the rural areas northeast of Hamilton, NZ, is run by Gordonton journalist/editor Annette Taylor.

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