New Zealand's dairy cattle population is increasing nearly 10 times as fast as it human one, in part at the expense of sheep farming, and creating a ready market for feed grains.
Official data on Monday showed New Zealand's human residents increasing at the rate of about 2,300 a month in the year to the end of March, the slowest pace in percentage terms in more than a decade and fuelled by emigration and the impact on the death rate of an ageing population.
However, the dairy herd is rising at the rate of nearly 2,200 a month, topped 6m head in the year to last June, outnumbering humans by 1.4:1, Statistics New Zealand data showed.
"More cattle were kept for milk production and future replacement – a result of the high milk solid payout and strong international demand for dairy products," Statistics New Zealand said.
Fonterra, New Zealand's biggest company, and the world's top dairy exporter, paid its farmer members a record NZ$8.25 per kilogramme of milk solids in the year to last July, equivalent to an average of about NZ$1m ($780,000) apiece.
The expansion in New Zealand's dairy industry has come in part at the expense of other livestock sectors, such as sheep, for which the country was once renowned.
|New Zealand livestock numbers 2011 and (change on year)|
Sheep: 31.1m head, (-4.3%)Dairy cattle: 6.17m head, (+4.4%)includes milking herd of 4.82m head, (+2.9%)Beef cattle: 3.8m head, (-2.6%)Deer: 1.1m head, (-3.0%)Source: Statistics New Zealand
The decline in sheep numbers was led by South Island, some parts of which were "most severely affected by snow and storms during the 2010 spring lambing season", Statistics New Zealand said.
However, South Island is also accounting for an increasing proportion of the dairy herd, of 31%, compared with 23% in 2006.
Food vs feed
The data also showed a continuation in a long-term decline in beef cattle numbers, down 102,000 at 3.8m head.
"Over half the decrease came from a reduced number of breeding cows and heifers, as a result of increased slaughtering, Statistics New Zealand said.
Deer numbers fell too, by 34,000 to 1.1m head, as slaughter rose "due to farmers receiving continuing high prices for venison".
However, the harvested area of corn rose by 5.2%, and of barley by 24%, as demand from largely-dairy livestock farmers encouraged higher prices.
"In 2011, more grain was grown for stock feed," Statistics New Zealand said, noting that barley had paid "well relative to other main crops".
Indeed, arable farmers showed less interest in feeding the country's human population. "The area for bread and milling [grain] decreased."