New grasses and technologies designed to increase grass production have been central to New Zealand’s developing agriculture. From the 1870s farmers replaced indigenous grasses with higher-producing exotic grasses.
From 1900 the Department of Agriculture began analysing soil, and researching fertiliser use and grass hybridisation. In 1926 the government established the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR) to find practical ways of boosting the country’s economy.
Clover and ryegrass
Agricultural scientist Alfred Cockayne proposed that white clover would provide soil with enough nitrogen to sustain permanent, highly fertile, ryegrass-dominated pasture. Cockayne, along with Bruce Levy, began researching this during the First World War.
From the 1890s, the Department of Agriculture investigated bush sickness, a wasting disease of stock. It was particularly rife in the volcanic region of the central North Island. The work of the department’s chemist, C. B. Aston, and especially Australian scientists, led to the discovery that the cause was a cobalt deficiency in the pumice soils. When cobalt was added to fertiliser or salt licks, the problem was solved.
The discovery of a perennial ryegrass strain in 1928, as well as the acquisition of cheap phosphate from Nauru in 1920, was fortuitous – applying superphosphate to soil made it fertile enough to grow clover and ryegrass. The government campaigned to convince farmers to grow these new pastures. Using perennial ryegrass and clover in pasture proved revolutionary – many other countries later adopted similar pastures on fertile lands.
Other fields of research
The DSIR and Department of Agriculture also researched plant disease, entomology (the study of insects) and agronomy (the study of crops and their management.