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

Mum, Dad and the kids. The fifth and last batch this autumn.

Muscovy Ducks On The Farm.

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.

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Check out my home page here and my behind the scenes story here.

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.

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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

Life On The Farm: Lambing 101

4 lambs at lambing time, all looking at the camera.

Spring

It’s September, which in Garston means spring, one of the busiest seasons in the farming year.

The trees are covered in blossom; daffodils abound; there is a ton of ground preparation to do before Terry can sow the new crops. But foremost in our minds right now are our pregnant sheep.

Mamma mia, here we go again: it’s lambing time on the farm.

Many Variations At Lambing Time

There are probably as many variations in farm lambing practices as there are farms in New Zealand. We all have our own ways of looking after the sheep in spring.

Partly it depends on the type of sheep you’re farming. Some, like Merinos, are bred to be easy-care. High country farmers put their merino ewes out on the hills and don’t go near them when they’re lambing. You’ll do more harm than good, trying to interfere there.

It also depends on the sort of lambing percentages you’re aiming for, and how intensively you farm.

Many farmers, especially those nearer sea level, where the land is warmer and winters less severe, aim for lambing percentages of 140% or more. Their sheep are bred for multiple births; twins and — even better —  triplets are common and encouraged on these sorts of farms. There’s a ton of work in this method, with lambing shepherds constantly going around the sheep. Orphan lambs — and some of those triplet lambs — will be brought into sheds and bottle-fed; others will be mothered on to ewes whose lambs have died.

On our farm, we’re somewhere in between these two extremes.

Jenny, bottle feeding orphan lambs during lambing time on the farm.
We keep rescued lambs in a cosy pen, and mother them onto new mums as soon as possible, but we don’t feed and  raise lots of orphan lambs the way intensive sheep farms do. 

Weather Matters

There is nothing nicer than lambing on a warm spring day. The sun is shining, the grass is growing, lambs are playing and there is comparatively little for us to do. There’s even time to chat as we drive slowly around each paddock looking out for signs of trouble.

Unfortunately, Spring rarely gives us 6 weeks of lovely weather. Instead, that changeable season is likely to throw everything at us: sun, wind, rain, snow, frost — you name it, we’ll get it in spades during lambing.

Spring is the time for the nor’west wind. It sweeps down the valley, gaining strength as the day goes on. A good nor’wester in Garston can rival a windy Wellington corner any day. Sometimes the wind is so strong you can literally lean onto it; truck doors slam on unwary fingers, and anything unsecured (boxes… bins… washing baskets…) can end up halfway down the paddock if you don’t catch it in time.

At least the nor’wester is a warm wind. However, it’s often the precursor to a Southerly change and that’s the weather we don’t want. Unlike the northern hemisphere, the south wind here can be bitterly cold, and brings with it rain and sometimes snow.

Going round the sheep in the wet and cold is horrible, especially in Terry’s preferred vehicle, the Polaris. which is not enclosed, and has no form of heating. I can’t complain too much because it does have a roof, so at least we don’t get wet in it. Lambing on a quad bike in the rain, as some farmers do, must be worse.

Terry, warmly dressed for driving the drafty farm Polaris.
The trusty Polaris.  A little more weatherproof than a quad bike, but still rather drafty on a cold day.

Stacking The Odds For Lambing Success

Caring for the ewes

It seems pretty harsh to expect new lambs to survive in awful weather but if you lamb outside, with a minimum of intervention that’s what they have to do. So we stack the odds in the lamb’s favour as much as we can. Often that starts in winter.

Terry works hard to feed the ewes plenty of good food during the winter because a well-fed ewe will be able to pass on more nutrition to the lamb and grow it to a good size before it’s born.

Just before lambing starts we bring in the conveyor contractor to give the ewes mineral supplements and vaccinations. The lamb will get the benefit of these when it drinks colostrum in the first few days after it is born.

Most of our paddocks have some sort of shelter which the ewes can seek out in bad weather. Tree-lanes, bushes, flax and even old wood piles all provide shelter from wind and weather when necessary. The idea is to give shelter as naturally as possible.

Ewe and lambs sheltering under a tree at lambing time.
A ewe and her twins under the trees which provide shelter from both rain and sun.

Pre-lamb shearing

A number of years ago we began pre-lamb shearing. It sounds mean to take the ewes’ woolly coats away in winter, but the sheep quickly adapt and the advantages at lambing time are huge.

Woolly, pregnant ewes are prone to lying down and getting cast, which means they end up stuck on their broad, woolly backs, unable to get up again. If a ewe gets cast after you’ve been through her paddock, she could end up lying there suffering for hours. She might even die.

Sheep can even become cast after giving birth. It is awful to find a cast ewe with a lamb nearby, dead because the mother wasn’t able to get up and lick the mucus away from its nose. Alternatively, a lamb may have a clear nose and get up and wander away from the cast ewe. Because it hasn’t been licked and suckled, the mother-baby bond doesn’t form and they can be difficult to pair up again.

Shorn ewes are far less likely to get cast. They are also less likely to lie down on their little lambs by mistake, and because they, too, feel the cold they are more likely to seek shelter for their lambs in bad weather.

Breeding For Survival

So those are some ways that we manage our sheep for successful and easy-care lambing. But over the past few years, we’ve been actively breeding for success as well.

Our sheep are the old-fashioned Romneys, which many New Zealanders would picture when they think “sheep.” They’re a good, all-rounder — good for meat and wool production — but traditionally they’ve needed a lot of looking after at lambing time.

Ideally, we only want to breed from ewes who have had a trouble-free birth and are good mothers. If we have to help a ewe to give birth, or to feed her lambs because her teats are at an awkward angle, or — worst of all — she takes one look of disgust at her newborn lamb and hightails it off into the distance, we give the ewe a black ear tag so that she is culled (removed from the breeding flock) before the next lambing season.

The Brown Fat Factor

We have also introduced new blood into the flock, with Snowline Rams from Cheddar Valley Station. These sheep are bred to produce hardy lambs with plenty of brown fat under their skin at birth.

Brown fat, also known as “brown adipose tissue”, is what keeps the lamb warm and gives it energy during its first few days of life. It’s especially important in that crucial time between birth and the lamb’s first feed and having plenty of it can make a big difference to a lamb born into cold weather.

Summing It All Up

So those are some of the reasons why we lamb as we do, and why you’ll see the Polaris or the farm truck driving slowly around our paddocks morning and evening during Spring.

Ewe and lambs in front of the lucerne paddock, which is growing one of next winter's feed crop.
The green lucerne paddock is growing next winter’s balage crop. Meanwhile, old straw makes a cosy bed for a well-fed lamb.

We actively work over a long period of time to give our sheep a natural environment and a safe lambing experience. But what is it really like to be out on the lambing beat?

That’s a topic  for “Lambing Part 2: A Family Affair.”

Photos courtesy of Jenny and Steph McNamee.

Winter Memories: Feeding Out On The Farm

Highland cattle eating hay

Highland cattle eating hay
Our pet highland cattle love their hay. Photo courtesy of Jenny McNamee.

Winter is an interesting season on the farm. It gets cold down here in the South. Not frigid like Siberia, or Alaska of course, but chilly by New Zealand standards. The grass doesn’t grow much in winter and feeding out takes up a big part of the farmer’s day. Of course, it wasn’t always as easy as it is today.

These days Terry can handle the feeding out by himself. The tractor. a feed-out machine and our new, automated grain bin are all he needs to be a one-man-band. But it hasn’t always been that way.

The Bales Were Smaller Back Then

When I first came to the farm, feeding out was a two-person job. Instead of the mammoth-sized round bales of today, we used to make the hay in rectangular bales tied with twine. These were small enough for one person to lift by hand.

We kept the hay dry in big barns which were dotted around the farm. There was an art to stacking it — the bales had to be interlocked so that the whole stack felt solid and wasn’t in danger of falling apart while you climbed on it.

Small hay bales stacked in a hay barn
Small hay bales in a hay barn. Photo courtesy of Pam and Peter Naylor.

Loading The Hay

Every day we would drive the red Land Rover truck up to a hay barn and load the hay onto its flat deck. Once again, we had to carefully interlock the bales as we stacked them — often higher than the cab. It was quite easy to lose your footing and fall off the back as the truck bounced along. Having a heap of bales tumble on top of you made the fall much worse.

I learned that the hard way one day when the hay, two kids and I all came off the deck. Fortunately, it happened in slow motion and no one was hurt. I was much more careful with my hay-stacking-technique after that.

Farm truck stacked with small bales, surrounded by sheep.
Farm truck stacked with small bales, surrounded by sheep waiting anxiously for feeding out to begin. Photo courtesy of Pam and Peter Naylor.

Feeding Out 

Once the bales were loaded, we would set off to feed a mob of sheep. One of us drove, while the other balanced precariously on top of the hay bales ready to feed the sheep. The job wasn’t too difficult.

First, you cut the string of the hindmost bale with a sharp pocket knife then tossed wads of hay out to the milling sheep below. Usually, it easily separated into sections and wasn’t hard to throw down.

As soon as the first bale was gone, you cut the strings of the second one, stuck the open knife in the bale behind so it didn’t get lost, and started throwing hay again.

There was an art to it of course:

    1. Cut the strings just after the knot and hold the knotted ends in your left hand.
    1. Feed out with your right hand.
  1. When all the bales are gone, knot the strings together in a tidy loop as you nonchalantly balance on the empty deck, while the truck heads for the gate.

Freezing Fingers and Toes

Once out of the paddock, we jumped off the deck and shut the gate with freezing fingers. It was a relief to hop into the warm cab while the truck returned to the shed to pick up the next load.

It was difficult to find the best gloves for the job. Certainly, thick, sturdy ones were no good. I couldn’t handle the knife if the gloves were too thick. However, woollen gloves quickly wore out, and I went through several pairs each winter. Even the holey ones were better than nothing, but they did get soaked when you fed out in the rain.  

Oh yes, this wasn’t a fine-weather job. Just like the postman, we were out in all weather. It didn’t matter if it was raining, snowing or just a hard frost, the sheep had to be fed.

Close up of sheep eating lucerne bale.
Ewes eating some lucerne (a nutritious alternative to grass hay.) Photo Lyn McNamee

Adding In The Grain

In July we added grain to the feeding out routine.

The grain bin was a huge, heavy affair, with two compartments. The grain poured into it through a tricky-to-start augur in the grain silo. Fortunately, it held enough barley or oats to feed several mobs of sheep before having to be refilled, so you only had to do that once a day.

One person could manage on his own, but it was a precarious and dangerous task. It was much safer to feed the grain with two people on the job.

The Driver…

Terry usually drove the truck, slowly towing the bin around the paddock at exactly the right speed. He had to be especially careful only to drive on firm ground. Parts of the paddocks got very wet over winter, and it paid to know which bits were safe to drive on, and which parts would get you bogged.

And She Who Ran Behind

My job was to open the slot at the bottom of the bin so that the grain fell onto the ground. I would pull a handle sticking out from the bottom end of the bin, and the whole slot would open. Then I either trotted behind the truck and bin or leapt up onto the towbar and rode until it was time to close things down.

This was easier said than done. Sheep love grain even more than hay, and they mobbed the bin well before we even started feeding it out. I had to carefully check the flow of grain too. There had to be consistent flow so that each sheep got the right amount to eat.

That depended on how fast the truck was moving and how far I had managed to open the slot. Sometimes the grain was sticky and I had to climb on top of the bin (while it was still moving) and poke it down the hole.

The Hardest Part Came Last

When enough grain had been fed, it was time to shut off the flow. The opening was easy enough because I just grabbed the hooked handle and let the truck’s momentum pull it open. However, closing the slot was more difficult.

The truck couldn’t stop when the bin was open because the grain would pile out. So I had to run behind on the slippery ground, bend down low and push the stiff handle back in. I usually carried a heavy spanner with me because it was much easier to give the lever a hearty whack and close it that way.

I Get To Drive…

Sometimes I was allocated the driving role. This was tricky too. The sheep mobbed front of the truck too and were in grave danger of being run over. I wasn’t allowed to drive too fast, but too slow was just as bad. If I misjudged the speed the farmer would yell!

Then there was the problem of knowing exactly where in the paddock it was safe to drive the truck. Sometimes the ground looked firm enough, but in reality, a bog lay underneath just waiting for me to fall into its trap.

Trailer wheel stuck in the mud,.
Oh dear! Photo Lyn McNamee

…But Not For Long

Etched forever in my mind, is the day I got the bin stuck not once, not twice, but three times in the same paddock, right outside my brother-in-law’s house. Terry had to pull the truck and bin out each time with the tractor, much to the delight of my audience of three little boys. I learned a few unrepeatable words that day, and exactly where the wet spots were in that particular paddock.

Red Land Rover, hay bale and grain bin.
Our red Land Rover, complete with hay and grain bin, one snowy winter’s day. Photo courtesy of Trevor Baker.

Big Round Bales

Eventually, modern times caught up with us on the farm. We bought a new baler which made big round bales (actually cylindrical in shape.) However we didn’t buy a feed-out machine for another two years, so to feed out we had to unwind the bales by hand.

Loading the round bales was much quicker — the tractor did all the work. But feeding out the hay required a whole new technique.

The bale fitted exactly onto the Land Rover’s deck, which left a toe-hold in each corner for me. I clambered round and round, peeling off swathes of hay, clinging spider-like to the ever-decreasing bale. It’s a wonder I didn’t fall off every single day, but my balance must have improved because I stayed on most of the time.

Moving With The Times

Feeding out changed forever when we bought a brand-new feed-out machine. Now one farmer could handle the whole job alone.

Feeding out was tougher 35 years ago, but for a new-to-the-job farmer’s wife, it was a lot of fun too. I was sad, in a way, to see my role go, but there’s no denying that the whole process is much easier now.

Highland Cattle image is courtesy of Jenny McNamee, of Postcard Puzzles.

Muscovy Ducks On The Farm

Muscovy Ducks swimming on a farm duck pond.
Muscovy ducks on the pond.

How It All Began

Our son, Chris, arrived home from university three years ago. Parking on the front lawn, he produced out of the battered depths of his rusty Toyota two bags and a big box. One overflowing with dirty washing, another filled with hardly-used books and, finally, 10 tiny ducklings —  closely followed by their disgruntled mother and a couple of large, surprisingly mellow, drakes (males). Yes, you read that right, our son brought home some Muscovy ducks.

“These were on the duck pond outside my house,” he casually explained. “The owners didn’t want them anymore. I kinda like them, so I brought them home.”

The big question in my mind, however, was “Who’s going to feed them?”

It was obviously a rhetorical question, you can guess who fed the ducks. And their offspring. And the next generation too. Because now the ducks have made themselves well and truly at home.

Close-up of two muscovy ducks.
The ducks are well and truly at home on the farm.

Muscovy Ducks On The Farm

Muscovies are fascinating birds. They may look alike but their personalities are quite different. Some are shy, others pushy: always arriving first to the meal bucket. Some stick close to the pond while others range far and wide over the paddocks. One duck is a loner and likes to potter up the gravel road far from home.

In Spring and Autumn the ducks and drakes pair off, and begin to prepare their nests. These could be found anywhere: under a bush… in the rushes… between two hay bales… But the one place you’ll never find them is up in a tree. Muscovies are big, heavy birds. They can fly but tend to stay low to the ground. They would never dream of doing anything as precarious as nesting in a tree.

Close-up of Muscovy duck on a nest in the hay barn.
Nesting quietly in the hay barn.

One peculiarity of Muscovies — and this is truly bizarre — the ducklings cannot get wet!  

Say what?  Hey back up — these are water birds that can’t get wet?

Yes, strange as it may seem, if Muscovy ducklings get their backs wet and cold in the first few weeks of life it can be fatal. However, neither ducks nor ducklings are aware of this fact and they scramble to dive into water whenever they see it. I’ve been known to administer life-saving first aid in the form of a warm hair dryer and a towel by the fire when, despite all our care, three ducklings managed to fall into a small bucket of water last spring.

Close-up of mother muscovy duck and day-old ducklings.
Safe from the rain and predators in the sturdy hutch, built for us by the local school’s woodwork class.

So we keep the mothers and babies in sturdy hutches for the first month or two. After that they are free to enjoy the pond on fine days, but we still shut them in at night or when the weather is rough. The cages protect them from more than the weather. There are plenty of stoats, wild cats and even hawks around, all looking to snaffle a tasty treat.

Group of muscovy ducks eating grain.
The ducks love their grain.

Twice a day we head up the paddock to feed the ducklings. I take the early shift as part of my morning walk. The Farmer takes the evening shift. That’s when all the ducks congregate. When they hear the little Polaris chugging towards the pond, they rush in from far and wide to gobble the scattered grain.

Too Many Ducks

Muscovy meat  is tender and sweet, and the eggs are huge and tasty. Both are considered delicacies amongst the duck-connoisseurs in our community. But these birds are our pets, and although we eat the eggs, somehow we just can’t bring ourselves to eat the ducks. However they are prolific breeders and we can’t keep too many of them because the pond won’t stay healthy and clean if it’s overpopulated.

Mum, Dad and the kids. The fifth and final batch this autumn.

So the first time the population rose above 40 I put an ad in the local paper. “Muscovy ducks for sale.” I couldn’t believe how fast they sold. We haven’t had to advertise again. Those same customers now phone up every season:

“Are the ducks for sale yet?”

And when the answer is yes, they can’t get here fast enough. I don’t ask what they do with their ducks. I don’t want to know.