Obituary: Ronald John Sharp

By Arnold Pickmere

By ARNOLD PICKMERE

Waikato farmer, inventor. Died aged 84.

Back in 1952 Ronald Sharp changed his milking shed to a design of his own, now known worldwide as the herringbone cowshed.

Since then his invention has saved thousands of dairy farmers countless hours of backbending labour and greatly improved the efficiency of milking cows.

Its inventor, who died of heart problems on June 26, never made a cent out of his design.

In the autumn of 1952 Ron Sharp of Gordonton near Hamilton took advantage of the usual dairy season lull to set about improving the old 12-bail walk-through cowshed his father had used. Bothered by a knee problem - and later hips as well - Mr Sharp had had about enough of stooping.

In those days milking was a chore that could involve all sorts of tasks, quite apart from getting the milking machine cups on and off each cow's teats.

There could be leg roping to keep the animal still, washing, stimulating the milk flow, stripping the remainder of the milk from the udder - you name it.

And just about every task for every cow milked involved the farmer stooping.

One estimate had a person milking for a season stooping 2400 times for each cow - 240,000 times for a then-large 100-cow herd. Then there was all the walking between each cow held in the 12-bail setup.

Ron Sharp's son Alan says his father firmly believed there had to be a better way of milking cows. Helped by family and friends he set out to have a "stoopless" cowshed.

As with all good ideas the basics were deceptively simple - a pit for the milker to stand in down the middle of the shed with raised platforms for the cows. The cows were "angle parked" with their udders within easy reach and at a convenient height for the milker.

The angle-parking idea came to Ron Sharp after observing cars angle-parked in Victoria St, Hamilton's main thoroughfare. It meant less walking for the farmer.

Ron at first called the system a "stoopless batch" milking shed, indicating that the cows could be fed into each side of the shed in batches, rather than being let in one at a time.

As each batch finished milking it was released to walk out the other end of the shed. All told, it was calculated, the compact system saved the operator around 225km of walking each dairy season.

Perhaps most important was that the Sharp cowshed could handle up to 90 cows an hour compared with 30 with traditional milking, opening the way for expansion in the dairy industry.

Dr W.G. "Wattie" Whittlestone, a world-respected scientist and lactation expert at the Ruakura Agricultural Research Centre, has described the advent of the herringbone shed as the "greatest innovation since the invention of the milking machine".

But in the 1950s others too were trying ideas for curbing the curse of stooping. His son Alan says that Ron Sharp learned from experience that the simplest item is usually the best. But that also meant it was often too easily copied or adapted to be readily protected by patent. So he never tried for a patent for the cowshed, or other simple, effective aids to farming he developed.

The herringbone, as it became known because of its shape, won little initial favour from the then Dairy Division inspectors. But it came of age and won international recognition in 1955 after one was installed at Massey Agricultural College.

By 1964 there were thousands such sheds (or parlours) around the world, including the Soviet Union.

A proud but unassuming man and well-respected stockman, Ron Sharp left school after primary school to help on the Gordonton family farm during the Depression of the 1930s.

His cowshed development and services to the farming community brought him a New Zealand Order of Merit in 2000.

Ronald Sharp was predeceased by his wife, Margaret (Livingston), and is survived by his sister Isabelle Herbert, and son Alan and daughter Kay Kelly.

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