I used to sell art for a living. My gallery, Zohar, opened at 10am, so I’d go for a leisurely walk around the Mount and have coffee with friends before my workday started.
However, I always knew I’d married a farmer. My husband Allen and I got here via banking in London, and art, jewellery and designer homeware in Mount Maunganui. But the lure of the land is real. Eight years on and I’m almost a fully fledged South Islander. We own 1000 cows, share-milk a 300ha dairy farm just north of the Rangitata River, and as a nod to the high-country station we dream of, we also have a flock of 11 ewes on our five-acre block in the foothills of Geraldine’s Four Peaks. Then, of course, there are the obligatory dogs, cats and chooks that complete the idyllic picture I’m sure you’re forming in your head.
Well, not so fast… August to October is calving season. The mere mention of this insanely busy, all-consuming part of the dairy farming calendar is enough to send any farmer’s wife into a frenzy of meal freezing and panic over the cleaning, accounts and mountains of washing that get put the backburner. Everything piles up while the family goes into survival mode. We even put our oldest son, Josh, into the boarding hostel at his intermediate school, because he needs more than cereal for dinner on the nights I’m too exhausted to cook. Allen is up at 4am every day for the duration, never takes a day off, and emits a continuous odour of afterbirth, cow poo and mud.
5am: The bleating wakes me up before the alarm. I groggily get up and prepare a bottle of warmed colostrum for Ngaru the lamb – a tiny triplet born in a hailstorm who wouldn’t have stood a chance outside. We’re usually fairly pragmatic about these things; the boys’ pet lambs go to the sales or the freezer once grown. But wee Ngaru doesn’t even know he’s a lamb: he has the complete run of the house, a basket by the fire, sleeps in the laundry with the dogs, and hangs out in my ute while I feed 350 calves. The words ‘rod for your own back’ come to mind! There will come a time when I have to draw the line at a fully grown, smelly, vege-garden-chomping sheep ruling the roost.
7.30am: We don our head torches and wander down the long driveway to wait for the school bus. The downside of a door-to-door ride means being first on and last off, which makes it a long day for a 10-year-old. But it’s a small price to pay for the chance to attend the small rural school that has offered my boys so much: tree huts and wildcat traps, pet days and vege gardens, a forest walk for which they’re ‘kaitiaki’ (guardians), and the diversity that comes from servicing a predominantly dairy area. They’ve made friends with children from Uganda, Sri Lanka, Kenya, the Philippines and Chile at school.
It’s bitterly cold and still dark, but by the time I head back to the house, the horizon is glowing a vibrant pink. There’s something amazing about being up and about before dawn.
8am: I take a batch of muffins out of the oven for the hungry farm staff who’ve also been up since 4am, then head to the dairy farm to start my daily job of rearing the calves. They’re kept warm and dry in the calf sheds for the first few weeks, then we put them into mobs of 65 out in the paddock and feed them milk at the calfeteria: a massive towable feeder with 80 teats.
11am: While moving a mob of calves between paddocks, I crash the motorbike into the calfeteria. Hobbling around slightly dazed, I have bleeding knuckles full of mud and calf poo, and half a mind to inject myself with veterinary penicillin. Joints are prone to infection and notoriously hard to heal. But all the needles in our calf-med box are dirty, so I settle for a wet wipe and a concrete pill. The calves still need shifting and there are no sick days when you’re the boss.
4pm: I race home, but don’t quite beat the school bus. Luckily, Olie’s adept at turning on the telly and finding the biscuits – in fact, he loves it when my day turns to custard and he gets an increase in unsupervised screen time. My co-worker, the indomitably happy Abbie Hawkins, will do the afternoon feed for our youngest calves today, which means I don’t need to take a bored child and a hungry lamb to the sheds with me until the evening.
5pm: A quick check over the ewes reveals one’s in labour. There’s a nose and two tiny hooves poking out, but she’s not looking very happy, so Olie and I walk her over to the yards and he holds the gate while I pull out not one, but two thumping lambs. Mama does a fabulous job of nuzzling and nibbling at the afterbirth. Instinct kicks in immediately, and within five minutes both babies are up on their wobbly little legs in search of a teat. It never fails to fill me with awe.
Muesli, our much-loved pet sheep, who’s due to give birth to her fifth set of babies, isn’t doing so good. Three days ago, I called the vet, who confirmed ‘sleepy sickness’. Muesli’s so full of babies, she can’t eat enough food to keep her energy up. I’ve injected her with a kind of sports gel for sheep, but it’s been three long nights. This evening, she finally succumbs, much to our dismay.
RIP, beautiful Muesli – thank you for all the sweet woolly babies you gave us. Note to self: I need to call our neighbour Gerald Johnson. He’s a retired sheep farmer who thinks I’m completely bonkers with my menagerie, but he’s also a soft touch. I know he’ll roll his eyes, but willingly bring his tractor over and dig
me a hole to bury her in. Although he may draw the line at officiating her funeral.
7pm: Olie feeds the chooks and collects the eggs so we can make scrambled eggs for dinner. I hear him calling, “I think Mr Amon’s dead, Mum.” Mr Amon’s our handsome rooster and the protective patriarch of our flock. Years ago, he spent a night on a drip at the vet, and enjoyed a week’s recuperation in the living room being hand-fed mashed-up cat food. I have to giggle when Olie explains, “He must be dead, Mum, because he’s lying
on his back with his legs in the air and won’t come when I call him.” They say farmers need great observation skills – sounds like you’ve nailed it, Olie. Some days I wish I was a city girl.
8pm: Scrap the scrambled eggs – give me a glass of wine and a piece of toast. And the accounts can wait – I’m off to bed.
WANT TO FIND OUT MORE ABOUT WOMEN IN DAIRY FARMING? Visit the Dairy Women’s Network for news, events, resource and information about joining your local group. DWN.CO.NZ