NZ dairy industry

New Zealand may be small in size, but our dairy industry is big in the world of dairy exports, being amongst the top 10 largest dairy producers globally.

With only 5 million people and around the same number of dairy cows, there’s a lot of dairy to export, and New Zealand sends it many places around the world. 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, giving cows access to grazed pasture as their main feed source all year round.

Australia has many of the natural advantages that New Zealand possesses such as ability to utilise grazed pasture, large areas of farmland suitable to dairy and access to strong export markets. Many of LIC’s Australian customers have adopted a seasonal calving system, with positive results, focusing milking cows to the pasture growth curve and keeping costs low.

NZ dairy industry

New Zealand farms just under 5 million dairy cows in over 11,000 dairy herds. These brought in almost $26 billion in export revenue in the year ending April 2023.

Dairying is spread across 1.7 million hectares of land and plays an important role in every regional economy.

The New Zealand 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. Spring is a busy time in New Zealand. Cows are calved to match feed supply with the rapid spring pasture growth.

Across the southern regions of Australia, especially in Tasmania, our farmers are looking for the same type of cow, one that suits their grass-based system.

Most New Zealand 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

When we use the word ‘Fertility’, we are referring to a cow’s genetic ability to get back in-calf. In other words, her Fertility (breeding value) BV. 

In general, cows that have a higher Fertility BV will get in-calf better/earlier than those with a low/negative Fertility BV. The New Zealand national average cow Fertility BV is 0.7, with 69% of cows having a Fertility BV of 0 or higher. This is good news as it means a large proportion of the New Zealand dairy herd is in a positive position for Fertility BV.


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’s HoofPrint® index enables dairy farmers to select bulls based on their predicted ability to generate offspring with a lower environmental impact.

Learn more about how LIC is helping farmers tackle current and future climate challenges.

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 in Australia.

Every year, to identify and breed the best cows to elites sires, New Zealand dairy farmers milk record 3.79 million cows and mate 3.94  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 and involvement in larger industry research projects such as:

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