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War Economy

Meat Production at High Levels

Meat Production at High Levels

Production of meat was very close to 520,000 tons in each of the war years except 1940–41 and 1943–44.3 This was 14 per cent above the average of less than 460,000 tons for the three pre-war seasons. Even in the two abnormal wartime seasons, production was still well above its pre-war level. Production of only 502,000 tons in 1940–41 was in part due to shipping difficulties, while the 1943–44 season, in which 493,000 tons were produced, was bad climatically, and output of all farm products dropped. Even in this bad season, meat production was 8 per cent above the pre-war figure.

High meat production had not always been an unmixed blessing. There had been a tendency in 1939 for the United Kingdom market to be over-supplied, resulting in a decision to reduce imports of mutton and lamb to 3 per cent below 1938. Rising New Zealand production in 1939 had, therefore, created considerable anxiety, but the war, followed swiftly by bulk purchasing arrangements, completely changed the situation.

3 Tonnage estimates used in this paragraph were given by P. W. Smallfield, in Department of Agriculture Bulletin 279, p. 69. They exclude offals.

page 205

Meat exports in 1939–40 were a record,1 and 12 per cent above the previous highest year. Shipping difficulties kept production and exports down in 1940–41 and, in December 1941, the meat industry received a shock when the United Kingdom, faced with heavy losses of shipping to U-boats, diverted refrigerated shipping from the Australasian service to the South American service, which took only half as long.2 As a result, stocks piled up in New Zealand, and storage was soon filled. Emergency cold storage facilities had to be erected at high speed. The reduction in shipping came at a time when production of meat was increasing fast, and all possible measures had to be taken to cope with the emergency. Beef was boned out and lamb and mutton carcasses were telescoped, in order to make the utmost possible use of available refrigerated shipping. Canning and dehydration of meat were used to avoid the need for refrigerated shipping space, but it was still feared that substantial quantities of meat might accumulate in cold storage during the war, to create an over-supply on the world market when in due course it was released. New Zealand had memories of this type of situation at the end of the First World War.

Writing of shipping shortages, A. A. Ross says, ‘… the British Government was forced to refuse to lift certain classes of lower-grade meat such as beef and ewe and wether mutton, and these meats were unshipped for a number of years’.3

This was not a new problem. In pre-war years, also, heavyweight mutton and second grade beef had been difficult to sell. The Department of Agriculture wrote in 1939:4

‘… So far as export lamb is concerned there is no need for any apprehension that increasing quantities cannot be satisfactorily marketed within the quota limits, but a very serious position has arisen, and will continue to exist in the export of aged-ewe mutton. This class of meat is the least wanted in Great Britain, and some method must be arrived at whereby this class of mutton is reduced to make full room for expanding lamb exports…. the fact that old-ewe mutton in Great Britain is rapidly coming into the unwanted class necessitates a complete readjustment in our marketing.’

Shipping shortages became worse in 1942, and increased the difficulties in clearing meat production, but, for the industry in New Zealand, relief was not far away. In June 1942 the first United States

1 Partly because the United Kingdom Government accepted as a special reserve lower grade meats, some of which had been in store for some time.

2 The reasons leading to this decision are discussed more fully by R. J. Hammond in a United Kingdom Official War History entitled Food, Vol. III, pp. 230, 231.

3 Wartime Agriculture in Australia and New Zealand, p. 260.

4 Parliamentary Paper H-29, Report of the Department of Agriculture, 1939, p. 4.

page 206 forces arrived in New Zealand, and from then onwards the United States Joint Purchasing Board ordered increasing quantities of New Zealand meat for forces in the Pacific, so reducing supplies available for export.

The situation was also changing in Britain. Wood writes:1 ‘However, in April 1943 the British Government offered to purchase the entire exportable surplus of meat (as had been done for 1940–41, but not for 1941–42), and it was added further that “if anything could be done to increase this surplus by control of consumption in New Zealand, it would be very welcome to us.”2 The change in the United Kingdom attitude seems to have arisen from the American inability to fulfil an offer to supply 458,000 tons of meat under lend-lease.’

Cattle slaughtering, like sheep slaughtering, was always above the pre-war figure, but in both cases exports were reduced.

Exports of frozen and chilled beef, after an initial boost in 1940, fell back to a little below the pre-war level for the next two years, but, in 1943, were much lower and, in 1944, almost disappeared. However, after 1942, disposal of beef presented no serious problems. By far the largest USJPB3 meat order for American forces was for beef and, in fresh beef alone, they had taken over 60,000 tons by April 1945. Canned and preserved meat production was around 20,000 tons a year for a couple of years, when shipping was difficult, but after 1943, with American orders to fill and improved shipping to the United Kingdom, much less emphasis was given to this method of disposal.

By the time New Zealand experienced her bad 1943–44 season, the United Kingdom's need for food was so urgent that any further drop in New Zealand exports threatened to be disastrous. As we have seen, meat rationing was introduced in New Zealand in March 1944, to free more meat for export.

Most New Zealand meat comes from sheep farms, and the higher level of meat production over the war years was associated with the tendency for sheep farming to gain ground at the expense of dairying. Lamb killings, which had averaged 9·4 million for the three seasons preceding the war, moved up to 10·4 million in 1939–40, and to 11·2 million in 1940–41. They stayed close to eleven million for each of the following two seasons and were around 10·6 million for the last two wartime seasons. On average, lamb had made up about two-thirds of the value of all meat exported, but the proportion was higher after 1941. Except for the

1 p. 279.

2 United Kingdom Ministry of Food to New Zealand High Commissioner, London, 19 April 1943.

page 207 poor year, 1944, lamb exports were well above pre-war levels throughout the war years.

Mutton, normally providing rather less than half as much export meat by weight as lamb, fell still lower in the war years. In 1941 and 1942 export tonnages were about 40 per cent down, and in 1943, which was the lowest year, exports of mutton were well under half the pre-war tonnages. Thus, although sheep slaughtering was often above the pre-war figure and at no stage fell as much as 10 per cent below, there was a considerable reduction in export tonnages in all years except 1940 and 1945.

Chart 44 shows changes in livestock slaughterings.

chart of slaughter statistics

Chart 44
Index Numbers: Base Average 1936–37 to 1938–39 (= 1000)

In spite of these variations the meat industry's output was high during the war years. The only sustained decline was in pigmeat production. Labour difficulties on dairy farms were a contributing factor here, and, with better returns for cream and milk, there was less need of this additional time-consuming source of farm income. Changes from butter to cheese and back also brought uncertainty in the pig industry and, from 1941, pig numbers declined.

War in the Pacific brought an important new buyer into the market. Contracts to the United States Joint Purchasing Board in- page 208 cluded substantial supplies of pig meat. But, although there was an initial increase in slaughtering, the decline in the industry could not be made good, and it became necessary to restrict local sales and to place a ceiling on civilian consumption, in order to ensure the supplies for the Americans.

Slaughtering of pigs was below the pre-war figure for all of the war years. There was some slight recovery in 1940–41 and 1941–42, but by 1945 the number of carcasses was less than 70 per cent of 1938–39.

During the war, individual farmers did not receive the full benefit of favourable meat prices paid under the bulk purchase arrangements. Substantial sums were diverted into special meat accounts, which played an important part in the Government's overall stabilisation scheme.1 In this respect meat was similar to dairy produce but different from wool, where the high wartime prices went to individual farmers.2 By July 1945 over £9 million had accumulated in the meat industry accounts.

Chart 45 shows changes in New Zealand meat production and exports.

chart of meat statistics

Chart 45
note: supplies under reverse lend lease were not recorded as exports

1 See also Chapter 12.

2 Partly in the form of Government stock of bonds or as credits to National Savings accounts.

page 209

It will be recalled that supplies for American forces, purchased by the United States Joint Purchasing Board, were not recorded as exports, even when sent to forces in other parts of the Pacific. The overall disposal of meat during the war years has been estimated as follows:

Disposal of New Zealand Meat Production 1939–40 to 1944–45
Per Cent
Civilian Consumption in New Zealand 32
New Zealand Armed Forces 2
United States Joint Purchasing Board 9
Exported (mainly to the United Kingdom) 57

All the American purchases occurred in the last three years of war. For these years they were taking as much as a quarter of New Zealand's exportable surplus.

Early in 1944 the United Kingdom, faced with drastic shortages of food, protected her supply sources by entering into long-term contracts to purchase New Zealand's exportable surpluses of butter, cheese and meat for the years 1944 to 1948. She pressed New Zealand to maintain and increase food supplies, even to the extent of taking men out of the army and switching her war effort to food production.1

1 Wood, p. 279.