Puppies On The Farm

Puppy and toddler on the farm.

Kids and puppies are inseparable when they’re young and they inevitably end up teaching each other a few valuable life lessons.

Even though our kids have long ago grown up, our son decided that I needed to keep honing my puppy-raising skills.

So, here’s a quick look at some of the cutest babies currently on the farm.

Rose

Rose, the heading dog and mother of ten healthy puppies.

Rose is the undisputed team leader of Chris’s dogs. The first pup he ever raised, she’s become a classic heading dog: small, slender and sassy.

When you put her with sheep she’s all business. You’ll see her crouched low, eyes fixed on her target, ready for business the moment Chris gives the command.

She’s got her eyes fixed on the Muscovy ducks too, so I keep them well apart. Rose would probably have duck for dinner before I had time to shout “NO!”

Time has sped by since Rose first came on the scene and already she’s 6 years old. In November, Chris decided that if he wanted to breed from her the time was now. So he played matchmaker with a friend’s equally talented dog… and we waited… and waited.

It seemed a long time before Rose began to show signs that she might be pregnant. But as she went from scrawny to roly poly we got the feeling that she had plenty of puppies inside.

Puppy Haven

Chris built a secluded puppy-raising sanctuary under the walnut trees, far from all distractions. With a spacious kennel and a ramp for when the pups were ready to climb out it had everything a new mum could want.

“I hope she doesn’t eat them,” Chris remarked the day they were born. Well, that gave me something new to fret about.

But we needn’t have worried. Over the next few hours, Rose gave birth to ten gorgeous puppies and proved herself to be an exemplary mother.

Rose looks out of her kennel, guarding her puppies.
Rose watching out for danger during her first few days of motherhood.

All The Babies Are Growing

Rose was very much on guard for the first week. Even Chris only approached her at mealtimes; the rest of us kept a respectful distance. Eventually she calmed down enough to let us “raid” puppy headquarters.

Two 10-day-old pups curled up on a sheepskin rug.

At ten-days-old the pups were little more than squirming sausages. Eyes tight shut, feeding and sleeping were the only things on their little minds.

A week later their eyes were open and they were just starting to toddle. Now they were the perfect size to meet the farm’s other beloved toddler — our grandson, 19-month-old Harvey.

Harvey looks delighted to meet the tiny puppies.
Harvey soon learned how to be gentle with the puppies.

Puppies grow fast and at 5 weeks these little guys kept busy all day playing around their kennel.

Puppies playing from Lyn McNamee on Vimeo.

They didn’t stray far from home — until one memorable morning.

Puppy Adventure

Racing down the ramp came the hoard of yapping puppies. Pushing and squirming, they dived into their two big bowls of breakfast milk and biscuits, while Terry tried to count heads.

1, 2, 3…8, 9.

He counted again — still nine. Hmmm!

“One puppy’s missing,” he reported. I choked on my cereal. This would happen the week Chris had gone mustering and left us in loco parentis.

We levered up the kennel to see if he’d burrowed underneath. Nope!

“People drive past so fast,” I thought. “They wouldn’t notice a puppy…” I dashed out to the nearby gravel road, praying.

“Please don’t let him be squashed.”

But there wasn’t a puppy in sight — thank goodness.

Rose had wandered off. Chris had left her untied because caring for ten rough-and-tumble infants was taking a severe toll on her limited supply of patience. Could the pup have followed his mum?

I searched the other dog kennels… under the trees… over by the tunnel house… in the long grass.

Surely he’d be crying if he was lost and far from home?

I was almost ready to admit defeat when:

“Yap!”

Just one little bark came from the patio rose jungle beneath our lounge window. Thorns scratched my hands as I peered into the murky undergrowth. One brave puppy stared back.

“Come on, Tarzan” I laughed. “I’ll make you some breakfast.”

A cute looking puppy.
Puppy number ten, AKA Tarzan.

The Puppies Are Weaned

Puppy number ten  must have told his brothers and sisters about his adventures in the big, wide world because after that we found puppies everywhere.

There were puppies on the carport… puppies chewing the boots. Puppies in the garden… puppy poop on the lawn… puppies chasing the ducklings.

And driving the car down the drive became a task fraught with danger.

Rose feeding 10 big puppies.
Rose has the haunted look of a mother dog who’s had enough of feeding this many mouths.

And Rose wanted nothing more to do with them. She had taken to spending most of the day sleeping on our carport couch — well out of reach of her mischievous brood.

“Build those pups a pen or I’ll shut them into a dog motel,” I threatened.

Do you think they’ve stayed in the spacious pen that Chris erected next to his dog kennels?

Of course not! There’s always a puppy or two pushing under the netting. We spot them sleeping with Archie in his kennel, or visiting their mum for a surreptitious snack.

But they’ve stopped wandering far and wide, for now, and ten pups always turn up for meals, so we’ll count that as a win.

Tails in the air, the puppies crowd around their dinner bowls.
Milk and puppy biscuits – yum!

Why these pups can’t be pets

It’s natural to love cute little babies — and at this age the pups are adorable, so people often ask, “Can I have one as a pet?”

But, the answer is always “No!”

These pups aren’t suitable for a town environment, and here’s why:

Working dogs are the backbone of a sheep farm, and a good heading dog saves a farmer hours of work.

They rarely bark — it’s the huntaway that makes all the noise.  These pups will control the sheep with stealth, position and sheer willpower.

Heading dogs are bred to run for miles and to think for themselves. What’s more, the herding instinct is in their DNA. Lacking sheep, you’ll often find young dogs rounding up chickens or even attempting to herd small children.

With their energetic heritage and herding DNA these pups are bred for farm life — that’s where they’ll be happiest and do their best.

Close up of a puppy running in the grass.

More Babies On The Blog

The McNamee family always had plenty of ducks and chickens on the home farm back when Terry was a lad, but they’ve been gone for years now. Do you think that we were pleased when Chris surprised us with a collection of Muscovy Ducks one spring? Discover their “ducky habits” in Muscovy Ducks On The Farm.

There are always plenty of babies around the farm at springtime. After all, breeding sheep is what we do best. So Spring tends to be happy, hectic and sometimes harrowing at lambing time on the farm.

Find out more in: Lambing Time On The Farm and Lambing 101

Do you have fond tales of animal babies too?

We’d love to hear them. Post them in the comments box below, or contact me if you’ve got a longer story to share.

The Old Apple Tree

There’s nothing quite like crunchy, crisp apples straight from the tree. But if you ask your great-granny about her youth, I guarantee she’ll say, “Apples tasted better back then.”

And it’s true!


Since the 20th century we’ve let many old varieties of fruit and vegetables slip quietly into oblivion — and with them have gone taste… aroma…and diversity. Count up how many different apple names you can see on the supermarket shelves. You might see six, but years ago there would have been dozens throughout the country.

It’s both sad and dangerous for the environment that we’ve lost so much plant diversity in the last hundred years. That’s why we treasure the oldest tree on our farm.

Mystery

In a quiet gully, far from prying eyes, stands an old apple tree.

Why is she there, far from the houses and sheds on the farm?

The now-dry creek used to wash down through the paddocks and home orchards on the terraces above. Perhaps an apple tumbled downstream, or a bird deposited a seed as it flew by?

However it happened, a seed sprouted and against all the odds, our tree thrived. How long she’s been there no-one can say but she’s old in New Zealand apple-tree-years, make no mistake about that.

An ancient apple tree, grows alone in a farm gully.
The old apple tree nestles in a gully, far from prying eyes.

A Special Apple Tree

But it’s not just the isolation, nor even her age that makes our old girl special, for she is a heritage tree. Because she has grown from seed this tree is actually unique — the only one of her kind in the world. You can’t be more special than that.

And her apples are beautiful; cooking apples like your great-grandparents grew. Raw they are tart on your taste buds, but cooked they turn fluffy, sweet and delicious. You might find apples like these in a farmer’s market, but never on the supermarket shelves.

Apples on the tree on a rainy day.

Our family loves this old apple tree, and when we climb up the gully each year at harvest time there’s a niggle of worry at the back of my mind.

“What if a fire raced unexpectedly down the dry gully? Would we lose her if disease struck? Even trees succumb eventually to old age…”

The world is losing its unique plants and animals at an alarming rate. I would hate for our old tree to join that list.

And yet, we may have worried, but year after year we stayed stuck in procrastination mode, until one day we met Riverton’s famous tree-saving duo.

Tree-Saviours Arrive On The Farm

Robert and Robyn Guyton are passionate permaculturalists and have developed their once-gorse-covered Riverton property into a food farm which supplies most of their daily needs. They are also the guiding lights behind the Riverton Environmental Centre and are well known in Southland for their conservation efforts and their enthusiasm about saving trees.

One windy, wet Sunday in early spring, Robert and Robyn decided to explore the old orchards around the Garston area. Our son Chris found them peering at some trees near the woolshed.

“These trees aren’t bad,” he told them, waving his hand around the nearby orchard, “but would you like to see the best tree on the farm?”

Of course they would. So he drove them up the gully to the quiet old tree.

So that’s how it came about that when Terry and I drove home from church that Sunday morning, we discovered Robert, Robyn and Chris all dripping wet and happily stowing cuttings into their car.

“What a find!” the Guytons smiled.

Robyn Shields

One of the Guytons’ missions is to train other people up in the art of tree-saving. So they passed the cuttings onto Robyn Shields, a former student of theirs, who lives not far from Queenstown.

Robyn Shields photographing the heritage apples.
Robyn Shields photographing apples from our heritage tree.

Robyn’s always loved old things so the idea of saving plants that might otherwise disappear for good immediately attracted her interest.

Naturally, she was keen to learn how to graft trees from the Guytons as part of their programme aimed at saving Southland heritage apple trees. In fact, the idea combined Robyn’s two favourite passions: gardening and antiques.

Not long ago the Shields were immersed in running a busy paua shell and souvenir business in Riverton but when they retired to Queenstown, Robyn ‘seized the day’ and set up a tree-saving haven in her backyard.

Grafting Baby Apple Trees

To get a true replica of an apple tree you need a cutting — or scion —  from the new growth of your original tree, and a rootstock to graft it onto.

Rootstocks come from trees that are particularly hardy and disease-resistant. They’ll ensure that the new tree has well-developed roots and a good uptake of nutrients. The rootstock also determines the size of the new tree and you can find ones from dwarf all the way up to vigorous (which are likely to be huge.)

When the new growth has hardened up — usually in late winter — Robyn takes cuttings from the old tree, pops them in the fridge and ensures that she’s got enough rootstock growing in her nursery.

When spring arrives it’s time to graft the scion.

First, Robyn carefully makes a split in the top centre of the rootstock stem. The next step involves shaving the bottom of the scion into a wedge and inserting it into the split. She tapes the two together with a special tape which will wear off over time.

Our Baby Heritage Trees

When I went to visit Robyn this summer she showed me a group of splendid, year-old saplings from our tree,. They’re growing strong and straight in her nursery garden.

Heritage apple tree saplings in growing in Robyn Shield's tree nursery.

Interestingly, these saplings are hardy, and appear to be particularly resistant to insect damage. The weather had been warm and wet and Robyn’s garden was plagued with aphids, but there was not one to be found on our young apple trees.

In winter it will be time for the trees to move on from their protected nursery, so we’ve got until then to decide where to plant them on the farm.

Looking Ahead

Now that Robyn’s got the tree-saving bug she hopes to be able to replicate other rare fruit trees around the Queenstown area.

After all, there are remnants of old orchards which date back to Queenstown’s gold mining days — especially out in isolated areas such as Macetown, or closer to civilisation at the Chinese Settlement restoration in Arrowtown.

Of course, Robyn would need permission from DOC and other organisations before she can work in those sorts of places. But she is allowed to plant some of her newly-produced trees in a designated area around the lower Shotover. In the future, that could mean that some rarer fruit is available for all to enjoy.

Thanks Are Due

The English and Scottish settlers who came to Southland and Otago brought many trees from their homelands. They have adapted to New Zealand conditions and have now become unique to us.

In these days of mass production where plant diversity is plummeting in the world, it’s wonderful to have people who care enough to work to preserve nature in all its many diverse forms.

Thank you Robyn, Robyn and Robert for your work to preserve our own little slice of apple tree history.

Black bucket full of heritage cooking apples.
A bucket of heritage apples picked last April, ready to be cooked for meal-time goodness.

Autumn on the farm is such a busy season. The men are busy harvesting the grain but I’m focused on gathering all the other food that nature is providing. My 2018 “Autumn Harvest On The Farm” series is a celebration of nature’s bounty and the foresight of the farmers who began developing this farm more than 100 years ago.

Mushrooms Galore

Precious Pears

Hops In A Hurry

Gathering In The Grain

Shane Matheson: Training Horses With Love

Shane Matheson trains racehorses — pacers to be precise. I could say he does it in his spare time, but he really doesn’t have any.

I’ve never been to a racing stables before but I’m fascinated by the whole horse training process. So it was thrilling to visit Shane and his partner Lisa at their Balfour stables to find out what makes a racehorse trainer tick.

A Good Trainer Knows His Horses

Shane Matheson shares a quiet moment with his horse after training.
Shane Matheson shares a quiet moment with his horse Charlton Reactor after training.

It’s easy to tell that Shane Matheson loves to train horses.

He speaks about them the way a good teacher talks about the children in their class. You can hear love and affection, frustration and pride. And, most of all, a deep understanding of each individual personality and what makes them tick.

The frustration comes from seeing potential go unrealised.

“I know it’s in there,” he says of one horse. “It’s just how to help him get it out.”

But that’s a skill that Shane has honed over years, and it seemed to me that he is pretty good at it.

Horses And Sheep — Somehow Shane Does It All

Racehorse training is a time-consuming life, and yet only the big guns can afford to make it a career. Smaller trainers have to fit the horse work around their other full-time jobs.

We see Shane several times a year, when he brings his crutching trailer to the farm.

Shane Matheson at his day job: crutching sheep on the trailer.

When you crutch a sheep you shear around their back end and legs. It clears off any dirt or dags and helps to keep the sheep clean. Most farmers can do it themselves, but for big mobs, it’s easier to call in experts like Shane and Lisa with their crutching trailer.

Crutching sheep day after day is hard physical work — and the travel time takes its toll too. Shane and Lisa start early and often arrive home late.

But no matter how full of sheep the day is, they always have time for their horses.

How Do They Do It?

That’s why on most days of the week you’ll find Shane rolling out of bed at four in the morning. His first priority is always feeding the horses. Then, all too soon, it’s time for the truck and crutching trailer to roll out the gate.

Usually the horses are out in the paddocks — they thrive on being outside with freedom to move. It gives Shane extra distance to cart the feed buckets, but less time mucking-out the stables.

However, dishing out up to 17 breakfasts isn’t the only morning chore.

“The horses need to build up their fitness,” he explained, “so they go jogging most days.”

A Racing Stable Needs A Team

Shane doesn’t have the time to exercise the horses in the morning. So, usually, friend and neighbour Jane Orr comes in to help.

“We simply couldn’t do it without Jane,” Lisa told me, and Shane nodded a fervent agreement.

Jane and Lisa are largely responsible for keeping the horses fit.

Separately or together, they hitch the horses to the jogging trailer which tows behind the ute. That way they can lead up to seven horses around the track at the same time.

Each one needs between 10 and 30 minutes of jogging time a day depending on their stage of fitness.

You can see how getting fit could take a good chunk out of the morning.

Lisa and Shane’s son Tristan is another vital team member. With so many of their daylight hours taken up with crutching, Tristan’s often the one you’ll find doing the night-time feeding round.

The teamwork continues onto race days as well. Sadly, for Shane, he often finds himself crutching on racing days while Lisa does the trainer duties at the track. That’s where 19-year-old Tristan comes to the rescue once more, by taking Lisa’s place as chief rousie and sheep-mover.

Training On The Home Track

Of course, Shane would rather be in the sulky than crutching sheep so each day he’s the one you’ll find behind the harness doing the training runs. The horses love their newly-sanded home track. Since Balfour’s so far inland this is the closest they’ll get to training on the beach.

There are many things for a pacer to learn, but the most important is to love the whole experience.

Shane Matheson in the sulky training a horse on his home track.

It’s exhilarating to watch a horse and sulky zoom past at close range on the practice track. I bet Shane is feeling it even more in the sulky.

Keeping The Horses Fed And Happy

Every trainer has his own magic mixture to feed his horses. Shane’s includes crushed barley, Betabeet, various oils and plenty of seaweed.

Seaweed is said to prevent mud fever* in horses. Shane can’t swear that’s true. But he can say that the horses haven’t had mud fever since he started them on seaweed.

The horses may be lucky enough to spend much of their time in paddocks but they’re still fed morning and night.  And not all the horses get the same mixture.

What they eat depends on a whole lot of other factors. This one’s ready to race; that one’s looking off-colour. Another horse is pregnant… each one has a different brew.

And occasionally a new horse will arrive with some interesting foibles.

Shane pointed to the farthest-away tree in the paddock.

“One horse would only eat over there when he first arrived,”

It’s the coldest, windiest spot on the farm. But every morning Shane had to lug the heavy feed bucket across the wet grass to that chosen tree. In every other spot the horse turned up his nose.

“We got him out of that habit pretty quick, Shane admitted. “He’ll eat anywhere, now.”

Where Do They Come From?

It’s expensive to own and train a racing horse and many people want their horses to win early on. So quite a few of the Matheson’s horses are ‘cast outs’ from bigger stables.


Shane, on the other hand, takes a longer view.

We went to see another horse who’d lately arrived at Shane’s stables a little depressed and refusing to eat. Now, he gobbles his food along with the best of them.

“The potential’s there,” Shane said.

“But this year my priority is getting him fit, healthy and enjoying himself. We’ll give him lots of joyful experiences now so that he’ll be raring to go out and reach that potential.”

We watched as Shane harnessed him into the training sulky. “I’m not sure how he’s going to go,” he admitted. “This is his first run in a while.”

Shane must already be working his magic. Two minutes later that horse was flying around the track and loving every minute of it.

2004 — A Race To Remember

When you’re running late something is bound to go wrong. Take the day that Happy Gilmore was entered into the Tuapeka Cup.

“We got a speeding ticket dashing through Clinton.”

That’s enough to put anyone in a tizzy, but worse followed on the Dunedin motorway. Happy Gilmore began rearing in the box.

You can’t scream to a halt in a horse box, and by the time Shane had pulled over Happy Gilmore’s leg was completely stuck, and his stablemate was not impressed.

“So we had take the other horse out — with cars zooming past — so we could manoeuvre the leg back out.”

It was no easy task.

“By the time we finished he was holding up his leg, looking really sorry for himself. And I thought ‘Damn, we’ll have to scratch him.’”

But they still had another horse — and his race came first.

Gradually, Happy Gilmore seemed to improve so into the sulky he went. Horse and driver galloped off down the course. Enough was enough! Shane decided to go for a drink.

As it turned out, it was just as well he did.

Happy Gilmore refused to settle. The stipes (stewards) decided that Shane would have to withdraw him from the race. So the call went out over the loudspeaker: “Shane Matheson, report immediately.”

In the bar, Shane was oblivious to the fracas holding up the whole race.

Eventually the driver took matters into his own hand and galloped the horse back to the start. This time, as soon as racing got underway, Happy Gilmore paced beautifully.

And, in the best of horseracing traditions, after all that, he won the race.

What’s Next For Shane

Shane’s cautiously excited about his current team — both horse and human.

He can’t say enough about Sheree Tomlinson, his regular driver, and with good reason. Sheree’s the top junior driver in Australasia, and Shane thanks his lucky stars that she’s an integral part of his racing team.

The horses are pacing out of their skins too.

Hurricane Banner set the scene at Gore on February 9th with a come-from-behind win in the last race of the day.

I can’t wait to see what happens next.

Shane standing with his horse Hurricane Banner.
Shane and Hurricane Banner relaxing at home before the big race.

Reading More On The Blog

Shane’s day job is running a busy crutching trailer business. He’s an expert who makes our farming lives easier by doing the job quicker and better than we ever could. You can read more about life on the farm here.

Our communities are full of people who bring great things into the world by following their dreams. Some create beautiful or useful things. Others – like Shane – bring joy through sport or entertainment. Still more own small businesses which serve others with useful and innovative products. You can read some of their stories here.

“The Shane and Jane Show” by Harness Link

Sheree Tomlinson at the 2018 Australasian Young Driver’s Championship

*Mud fever causes irritation and dermatitis on a horse’s legs. Wikipedia, as usual, has a comprehensive explanation.

Making Hay While The Sun Shines

Summer is haymaking season on the farm and I love to reflect on how making hay has changed over the years. We still use dried grass but our ancestors wouldn’t believe how we can make hay now.

The tractor fluffing up rows of hay with the hay-bob in perfect, sunny haymaking conditions.
Terry’s Massey-Ferguson tractor fluffing up rows of hay with the hay-bob.
Our farming ancestors would be so impressed with how easy this is. 

The Easy Way To Make Hay

At its simplest, hay is just dried grass stored for the winter. Cousin Matt, with just five sheep to feed, has haymaking down to a fine art.

At some point during the summer, when he’s cutting a paddock of hay down that way, Terry will run the mower along the grass verges near Matt’s house.

A few days later when the long grass has dried Matt simply picks it up and dumps it into large sacks (called fadges). Hey, presto! Winter feed is done and dusted.

But of course when you have 3000+ mouths to feed the process becomes a bit more complicated.

Back In The Day

Once upon a time, skilled farm-hands would have cut a paddock of long grass with sickles — those wicked-looking long curved, super-sharp blades. Others would follow behind and hand-spread it to dry.

A few days later, the hay was pitchforked into huge piles called rucks.

It was all slow going and hugely labour intensive. No wonder that farmers began to embrace the new technology of tractors and hay-makers when it began to surface.

Working the stationary hay baler at the Vintage Machinery day in Garston, February 2019.
John and Graham Petersen demonstrating hay making using an early stationary baler at the Garston Vintage Machinery Day, February 2019.
Farmers would have towed a “sweeper” behind a horse to gather up piles of hay and dump it beside the baler. The strings are threaded between each bale with a giant metal needle, then tightened and tied by hand. This process needed at least four people: one to fork the hay, one either side to tie the strings, and one to drive the horse.
And don’t forget the cook at home making the mountains of food needed to fuel all the workers.

Square Baling On The Move

By the time I came onto the farming scene, haymaking had become rather more sophisticated. One person could mow the grass with a tractor and mower, turn it over with a tedder or a hay rake, and tie it up with a baler which moved with the tractor. (Nowadays we call them square bales, although of course, they’re not actually square at all.)

The Tedder - a long, angled machine with 6 wheels and multiple tines which turn the hay over to dry.
The tedder runs behind a tractor. The tines on those six wheels are constantly scooping up the hay and turning it over to dry underneath.

The baler pumped out the bales and dropped them onto the ground ready to be stacked. Usually we towed a gatherer behind which slid the bales along the paddock until there were enough to make a stack.

My job was building the stacks. No need for a gym membership in those days  — freshly-made bales made great weights! And of course, since the finished stacks were always head-height, I needed an extra bit of oomph to heave the last bales on top.

A temporary stack of 13 hay bales in the paddock.
A temporary stack like this is the perfect size for a tractor to pick up with a clamp and cart back to the hay shed. The bales would be re-stacked inside the shed, to keep them safe and dry till winter. If rain was threatening, we would tie a cover over the top to protect the bales until they could be shifted. 

Introducing The Sledge aka “The Man-Killer”

Another way to build the stacks was on a sledge which towed along directly behind the baler. You stood on the sledge and picked up each heavy bale as it pumped out of the machine. Relentlessly, every 10 seconds, another bale to lift and stack. No wonder we groaned when the sledge came out.

Hamish and Peter Naylor just happened to be baling small bales the other day.  
You can imagine how tiring this process can be when you have to stack a whole paddock’s worth of bales using the sledge.

Rain Covers

“Grab the covers,” ordered Terry. “It’s going to rain.”

So I dropped everything and loaded the car up with the dusty covers piled in a corner of the workshop. (In later years I had to add kids and the latest baby as well.)

Nowadays, there’s not the same panic if it rains; the big modern round bales are reasonably waterproof. But the small bales would rot if they got wet so we had to protect them if we didn’t want to lose the lot.

There’s an art to covering a stack in the quickest time possible — and sometimes we did have to be quick! I lost count of the times we had to dash down to the hay paddock because of looming rain clouds.

Working together, two people could cover a stack and dash onto the next in a couple of minutes and it was actually pretty fun to race the rain.  

Folding — and unfolding — the covers correctly so that they were quick to use was one of the first things I learned on the farm. I can still almost do it in my sleep.

A tractor takes a clamp full of hay bales up to the hay shed where the men are waiting to stack them in their permanent home.
Photo courtesy of Peter and Pam Naylor.
You can see how the stack of 13 bales fits perfectly into the tractor clamp. This is easier than tossing each bale from the truck up into the hay shed by hand, as we sometimes had to do.

Keeping Up With The Times — Technology Moves On

But although haymaking had become easier and faster than those earlier times, we still needed a lot of hands on deck to make it happen. Nowadays, just as winter feeding out has become a one-man-band, Terry can also make the hay all by himself.

Cutting the Hay

Modern mowers are huge, noisy and fast. Ours is by no means the latest model, but it can still turn a huge paddock into long, flat rows of mown grass in just a few hours.

Turning the Hay

If the weather-gods are kind and the sun shines bright, the grass will be ready to turn in a day or two. Often, the rows are so thick that the grass dries on top, but stays wet underneath. Then we have to turn them over (called tedding.).

Later, he’ll go round again with a “haybob” which fluffs up the hay and puts it into defined rows which are easy for the baler to pick up.

Ready to Bale

In a few days, the hay will be ready to bale, and that’s when the big round baler swings into action. (Of course just as the “square bales” aren’t really square, “round bales” are actually cylinders. Who knows how they came to be called round?)

So, around the paddock we go for the 4th time. This time the baler chomps up the fluffy rows of grass and spits the hay bale out the back like a hen laying an egg.

A hay baler opens to release a large round bale of hay.
The hay baler opens to release a large round bale of hay.

Each bale is the equivalent of a whole stack of square bales and there’s no stacking or stooking to do. The tractor simply picks up the round bales and carts them off to the hay shed.

A Bountiful Summer

In Garston, we have to feed our stock in winter. There are months and months where the grass doesn’t grow, and our sheep depend on hay, balage and grain to survive.

And the weather in spring and summer is a crucial factor in the cycle of winter feed.

This year we’ve been blessed with plenty of rain — but not so much that we’re drowning in it. There’s plenty of grass in the paddocks, and lots to spare for haymaking.

Last summer — in the middle of our two-year drought — Terry managed to shut off two paddocks for hay and their yield was miserly. One paddock managed a measly 19 bales in total. Yesterday that same paddock yielded 19 in just two rounds.

What a difference! It may be hard to please a farmer when it comes to the weather, but this year I reckon we’ve come pretty close.

The lush clover, grass and chicory paddock close up.
This paddock of clover, grass and chicory produced lots of beautiful, nutritious hay this year.


Weather Matters on the Farm

Is The Weather Changing?

There is still fierce opposition in some quarters about whether the weather is changing and the whole climate change debate.

It seems to me that humankind has indisputably contributed to the raised carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere. And the disgusting levels of pollution throughout the world can only be attributed to us.

Whether or not you agree with climate change, a radical overhaul of the way we treat our environments — local, national and planet-wide is sorely needed and long overdue.

This week I took a look back at some memorable weather moments on the farm in Garston. Snow, rain, wind, storms, droughts and of course many, many lovely days. We’ve had them all and more in the 35 years I’ve lived in this beautiful place.

View over snow-covered mountainside and farm paddocks in Garston, winter, 2015.
Wintry weather over the farm in Garston, 2015. 

Weather And Water

Last Summer was a hot, dry one. The faithful stream which feeds our farm and two houses dwindled to a trickle. Day after day the sun beat down, the thirsty sheep drank more water than ever, and the pool which houses our precious water intake came within an inch of failing.

Dry weather took it's toll. Our farm's water supply creek, reduced to a trickle in January 2018.
Just a trickle left in our precious creek. January 2018.

But Spring this year has been the opposite: sun — sure — but also wind, snow and so much rain! The trickle has transformed into a torrent and now instead of drying up, our water pipe is in danger of being washed away.

Water supply creek in flood, November 2018.
The trickle has changed to a torrent. November 2018.

When you work outside the weather plays a huge part in your life. You’re at the mercy of the elements day in, day out. And no one is quite so vulnerable to the whims of the weather gods as a farmer.

Weather Varies Throughout The Valley

When glaciers carved out the Upper Mataura Valley in the last ice age they left a narrow river valley and a series of terraces rising up towards the mountain ranges which line the valley east and west. The formation gives the weather gods plenty of ways to play their tricks.

It’s only a small valley by world standards, but the weather at one end can be completely different to what’s happening at the other end. I well remember one summer when day after day afternoon rain bands swept up the valley floor but left our farm on the terraces parched.

And I’ll never forget a particularly fierce thunderstorm which rattled the windows of our house. Hailstones poured in such torrents that they formed a fountain shooting off the guttering. Thunder and lightning flashed overhead and there was no way I could drive down to a scheduled meeting at the school.

10 minutes later the whole thing was over and I dashed down to the meeting — only a kilometre away and there was not a hailstorm to be seen. No wonder they looked disbelieving when I explained why I was late.

But nothing can compare to the wall of water which swept out of its creek bed and down the road towards two thousand sheep and lambs one fateful summer evening.

Stormy weather looms. Storm clouds brewing over Garston.
Storm clouds brewing late on a hot afternoon.

Flash Flood

January 2001. It was a hot, hazy day — and we had spent it bringing sheep and lambs down to the holding paddocks beside the woolshed, ready for weaning the next morning.

Its quite a tricky job — lambs and ewes are notoriously hard to move. While the majority of them will run where you want them to, there are always lambs which bolt in the opposite direction — and ewes that are determined to search back through the mob for their missing lambs.

However, by evening the woolshed paddocks were filled with a great noisy mass of sheep and lambs. Gradually they settled enough to eat and to drink from the small stream which winds through on its way to the Mataura River.

On this fateful day, towering storm clouds had built up over the mountains as they often do on hot afternoons. Thunder rumbled occasionally but no rain fell on the milling mob of sheep and lambs and we were pleased about that. A thunderstorm over the outside yards would have meant we’d be working with drenched sheep and slippery mud the next day.

By 8 o’clock the clouds over the mountains were thick and black. It was clearly teeming up there. Most of us were just relieved it wasn’t pouring on the sheep but a subdued rumbling sound made Terry uneasy. Abruptly — and for no reason that I could see — he abandoned his meal and headed to the hill paddock above our house where he could spot the creek as it came down the mountain.

Casually we watched, wondering why he was driving up there. Suddenly his truck spun around and shot back down the paddock at high speed. At the gate, Terry leapt out, dashed towards his dogs and yelled at me —  “Get help! There’s a flood on the way!”

Action time!

Down to the woolshed we dashed with one purpose in mind — to get the sheep away from the creek paddocks and onto higher ground.

Chaos ensued: dogs barking, kids screaming, alarmed sheep bleating and Terry yelling orders which no one could hear. Suddenly into this confusion burst Andrew — the neighbour I’d called for help — bringing more dog-power and a renewed urgency. Dashing down on the heels of the flood he had seen the wall of water which was sweeping down the narrow gully towards us.

Just minutes later the last animal had been hustled through the gate onto the hill above the woolshed. James and his new partner Lizette — making her first visit to the farm this fateful day— together with 7-year-old Chris dashed their truck across the bridge seconds before the wave hit.

On it swept, spreading across the paddocks, inundating gardens and flooding the State Highway as it crashed its way towards the Mataura River.

1 km up the road, Scotts Creek was behaving in a similar manner, leaving its farmers equally stunned. And yet, in the whole valley, these were the only two streams which flooded. All the water in that intense thunderstorm was concentrated in one narrow band — flooding the two streams and leaving every other waterway untouched.

What a mess that flood left in its wake. Our road and all its culverts were washed out. Fences piled high with debris which took weeks to clear away.

Fences piled high with debris after the flash flood. Garston 2001.
Fences piled high with debris outside the woolshed. As you can probably guess, we postponed the weaning for a week that year.

The neighbour’s water system was destroyed — but not ours, thank goodness.

We marvelled at the path of destruction which was visible along the creek bed for months afterwards. The mud-covered bushes high above showed just how far that wave had reached.

Brown vegetation high above the creek bed shows where the wave reached.
Brown vegetation high above the creek bed shows where the wave reached. We are so thankful for the warning rumble that alerted Terry to the potential disaster.

Farmers Are NEVER Happy With The Weather

My farmer lives and breathes the weather. He is always out in it, rain…hail…snow…wind…sunshine, and so are his animals and crops.

As you can imagine, it’s not a lot of fun for a sheep being out in the wet and cold. We have sheltering trees and bushes in most of the paddocks, and of course, they have their woolly coats for protection, but they still look miserable in the sodden paddocks on a rainy day.

However, too little rain is equally bad. When the dry weather goes on and on the ground dries out and the grass doesn’t grow. The sheep lie panting under the trees and are constantly looking for food.

Even when I think the weather is perfect, something will be wrong with it from a farmer’s point of view. Inevitably that nice drop of rain in a dry year seems to come just after we’ve cut the grass for hay.

In a really good year (weather-wise) I’ve even heard farmers muttering about “too much grass” on occasion.

Weather Matters

When I first came to the valley way back in 1981 I used to phone home to Auckland on an expensive toll call once a month.

When I hung up my landlady would always say “What’s the weather like up there?”

I didn’t know. It was not a question I ever thought of asking. As a city girl the weather wasn’t so important to me back then. But nowadays, I’ve lived so long on the farm that I understand just how much the weather matters.

I don’t phone home much these days — but thanks to the world wide web my messages with Mum are frequent, and you can be sure that nowadays we always mention the weather.

Blue sky and sunshine weather. The view South overlooking the green farm in late spring.
But still, often the weather is beautiful.  And the valley looks green and lush after all that rain.  November 2018.

And Your Weather Is…?

I’ve often been heard to thankfully remark that whatever the weather gods are throwing at us in Garston, its always far worse somewhere else in New Zealand. Our weather is mild and kind compared to the extremes some of you face in the world every year.

What are your best and worst weather memories? Comment below – and/or share a photo on Time of my Life’s Facebook page.

Lambing Time: A Family Affair

A ewe nuzzles her tiny black lamb at lambing time

All Hands On Deck

Running a farm is an all-encompassing affair. It’s your livelihood and your life. So when you start having kids, lambing time becomes a family affair.

Our children were immersed in the farming lifestyle from their earliest days, and never more so than in Spring. During this busy season, our motto has always been “all hands on deck.”

When the kids were small, tiny lambs were their main delight. Because of the intensive way we lambed back then, there were always spare lambs in the pen waiting for new mothers. They were fed four times a day, and the kids quickly learned all the tricks of the trade, from mixing up multiple batches of milk to persuading a reluctant lamb to drink.

3-year-old Debbie bottle feeding lambs at lambing time.

A Lamb To Remember

Inevitably some became pets. Every year, a new set of pets to love and play with. Our memories of the healthy ones are blurred now but one lamb we’ll never forget.

Floppy. He was not the prettiest, with wobbly back legs that never worked particularly well, but oh what a personality that lamb had. Other lambs came running for the milk and rushed off to play as soon as the bottle was empty. But Floppy loved a cuddle and because he belonged to Debbie, who loved animals to distraction, he got hundreds of them. I would often find them cuddled up together in the paddock or in the hay barn, both perfectly happy.

Floppy’s spirit was indomitable, but his body gradually let him down. Eventually, those wobbly back legs gave out, and he stopped walking. Even then he didn’t give up, dragging himself around on his front legs and bottom, and always happy for a bottle and another cuddle. It was a sad day for us all when at last he gave up the fight.

Debbie cuddling her special pet lamb, Floppy.
Debbie with Floppy who only lived 3 months, but taught us a lot about making the best of what life gives you.

Opening The Gates

As the kids got older they graduated to task number two: gate opener. Our sheep were set stocked, which means that each little mob was shut in its own paddock. There were so many paddocks, each with its own set of problems, that having someone to open and close the gates was a great time and energy saver.

It wasn’t always one of our children of course. My parents loved to come up and help out at lambing time, and so did visiting cousins and friends. It was such a thrill — and an education — for them to go round the sheep with Terry.

Gate opening may sound like an easy job, but on our farm, believe me, it wasn’t! Every gate seemed to have a different sort of latch or chain. Some were simple to unlatch but tricky to do up again. Others were the opposite. Some gates swung beautifully on their hinges; a few had to be lifted and heaved bit by bit until there was just enough room for the truck to squeeze through. Most gates were metal — a few were the old (actually, ancient) wooden variety and we were more than a little scared of breaking them as they creaked open.

— And Other Essential Tasks

In those days we identified all the twin lambs by spraying them — each set with their own colourful mark. If a twin wandered away we could find the mother by looking for the other similarly marked twin.

In their, pre-children days, the men would simply use dots or lines on the lamb’s heads, necks, backs etc. But once the kids and I came on the scene we got far more creative. Terry didn’t care what we did — so long as he could easily see the mark.

Again, this was a job that anyone who was agile enough to jump out of the truck, scoop up twin lambs, deftly spray a mark on exactly the same part of each lamb, and dash back to the truck without disturbing the ewes or being followed by the lambs (who suddenly decided you were their best friend) could do. It was another way we could help Terry save a little bit of energy for the big things that the kids couldn’t do yet.

Fast forward to 2018, and we don’t mark the twins any more. In the keep-it-natural-whenever-possible way we approach lambing now, we’ve found it really isn’t necessary, We save a lot of time, and spray and funnily enough, 99% of the lambs and mothers seem to find each other again anyway.

Nowadays we reserve the spray markings for sheep and lambs who’ve been mothered on. We put the same mark on both the ewe and her adopted lamb, just in case they get separated.

2 sheep and lambs brightly marked with flag symbols for the 2015 Rugby World Cup which happened during lambing time.
The 2015 lambing: Steph decided on a “Rugby World Cup theme” and marked all the mothered up lambs with flags. They were all particularly bright and easy to identify that year.

A Day In The Life At Lambing Time

Wake up time is not by the clock, but rather, with the birds. By sun-up we’re filling the flask with hot water — for mixing milk powder, not coffee — and gearing up for the morning lambing beat. Even on a fine morning, that means jerseys, coats, hats and long socks under our trousers.

If you’re me, you might even be wearing woolly leg warmers and a rug. The men, of course, are far tougher and wouldn’t be caught dead with either of those. But, as I said before, it’s pretty chilly in the Polaris and I like to take all possible precautions against the cold.

So off we chug in the Polaris. It’s small and light, and the sheep don’t take much notice of it as we trundle around the paddock, unlike the larger farm truck, which they tend to view with some alarm.

Inevitably there will be one or two dead lambs to pick up, but what we’re really looking for is signs of a ewe or lamb in trouble. Most ewes will give birth naturally and without too much drama. Then they’ll turn round, find — somewhat to their surprise — this tiny, wet creature, and begin to lick it clean. After a while, the lamb will find its way to the udder, have a good drink of warm, life-giving colostrum and never look back. We don’t have to worry about those lambs.

Looking For Problems

Not all the ewes have it quite so easy. Lambs coming backwards; twins in a tangle; a lamb that’s grown too big and is just plain stuck — these are what we’re watching for and they’re not always easy to spot. Ewes that are out in the open, eating, looking happy — those girls are fine for now. But we check anything that’s off by itself beside a fence, or under a tree, looking a bit forlorn.

You would think that a ewe in trouble would be grateful when the lambing shepherd arrives to help. You would be wrong! As soon as she realises that you’re interested in her, she’s up and away. No matter how miserable she feels, she’s likely to bolt as soon as you try to catch her.

Some dogs are great at helping to catch a sheep. Our son has several that make his life much easier in that regard.

We don’t!

I’m not particularly good at imitating a sheepdog, but I do my best to head the ewe in Terry’s direction, and if we’re lucky we’ll catch it the first time. Or maybe on the second attempt. By the third attempt, I’m keeping very quiet and trying not to be noticed. If (heaven forbid) we have to make a fourth attempt… well, let’s just say that on those stressful occasions I learned some new words in the first few years that I did the lambing beat.

Round the sheep…deal with any problems… open and close the gate… into the next paddock… repeat, again and again. On a fine day with few problems, it’s magic. On a wet, cold, snowy or windy day it’s horrible. The best we can hope for at lambing time is a fine, warm spring with no problems. The worst we can get is the opposite.

Back They Come

Our children may be grown up now, but every year at least one of them comes home to help out at lambing time.

I like to think that farming keeps them grounded and, like riding a bike, those skills learned as children and teens never really leave you. The girls may be city-based now but they can all still help to catch a sheep or lamb a ewe. They haven’t forgotten how to grab a runaway lamb and unblock its gummed-up tail.

We love it when they come back and truly appreciate their help. We’re getting older now, my farmer and I, but, happily the latest generation is alive and well and getting ready to do his part.

1 year old Harvey is bottle feeding a lamb with his mother and auntie at lambing time.
Harvey is getting ready to join the team at lambing time.

Lambing Time looks a little different on the farm these days. Find out more in Part 1 of this series: Lambing 101

Babies Are A Treasure On The Farm

You can read about more of the cute babies that we’re blessed with on the farm in:

Puppies On The Farm AND Muscovy Ducks On The Farm