Working in a dairy farm in Southland

Map of New Zealand - Outline by FreeVectorMaps.comAfter more than a month to walk the streets of Dunedin, I left the city Saturday, August 6. JMa, the lady of the Hare Krishna wwoofing where I spent the month of July dropped me off at the Intercity bus stop. Four hours of transport to reach Invercargill in Southland region at the end of the South Island where I will work for two months in a dairy farm. I left behind my wwoofers friends and I feel, due to the fact that I am traveling alone again, a little fragile. During the ride, I wonder about how the work will be (which is supposed to be very tiring), how is the family where I will be living, if I will understand them… in short the usual unnecessary questions that my mind is used to formulate. The weather is beautiful and while letting my mind wander, I appreciate the rolling grasslands landscape. Passage by Gore, the New Zealand capital of country music and brown trout and we arrived in the early evening in Invercargill. I am greeted by Julie, the young woman of the farm, who picked me. We sympathize in the car an Julie describes to me her family. She and Jeremy, are the parents of three young children: Isla (almost five years), Carter (two years) and Chloe (7 months). That’s means that the house will be animated. I quickly distinguished the contours of the farm in the shadows of the night and we arrive. Julie introduce me to everyone and showe me my room. Indeed I will live in the house with the whole family.

That’s it for the introduction! Small jump in time. At the time I am writing this post, my stay in the farm is over. So I’m gonna describe to you my awesome experience of two months with a Kiwi family working on a dairy farm in Southland.

Staying in a kiwi family

Jeremy, 27, and Julie, 24 are born and raised New Zealanders. Jeremy’s family is from a little village, Drummond, forty minutes from the farm. His parents, Jill and Murray are also farmers. Jill is also working for a dairy farm and Murray manages a hundred sheep that live on the land of the farm. Julie is originally from Te Anau, a village in the Fiordland (southwest of the South Island, two hours from the farm). Julie’s parents, Jill (yes, Jill is a popular name in NZ) and Alan still live in Te Anau in a nice house with a beautiful view of Lake Te Anau and the snowy mountains of Fiordland. Her mom, Jill works at the village supermarket. Her dad was seaplane pilot and chef on expedition cruises in the fjords of Fiordland. Today he works for Tracknet, a transport company belonging to the Te Ana Lakeview Holiday Park.

Before becoming a farmer, Jeremy worked in construction. But it is the farm work that really interests him. He would like to have his own farm but apparently unless being really rich or owning the family farm, it is very difficult today in NZ, to buy land for farming. Julie in addition to caring for children and helping on the farm, is currently finishing her studies to become a midwife. Besides the three children mentioned above, the house has an indomitable young dog named Fergus, who loves jumping at you in the face to say hello and Mr. Perkins, a domestic cat that prefers chicken flavor pouches rather than fish flavor. Living in immersion allowed me to meet many of the members of both families. Everyone was very friendly, very interesting and it was a wonderful experience.

Jeremy and Julie are “contractors milkers”. This means that they take care of cows, calves, calving and milking. But the lands of the farm and the cows do not belong to them. They belong to Graham and Severna a couple of New Zealanders in their fifties, very friendly too, living in a beautiful house, about ten minutes at the end of the property. It has been almost thirty years since Graham and Severna are farmers. As it takes a lot of work and time, they decided not long ago to partner with contractors milkers. Graham continues today to take care of the farm work and helping Jérémy while Severna takes care of feeding the calves.

The house where Jeremy, Julie and children live is on the edge of the paddocks. It is a friendly ground floor house (like many New Zealand houses). The living areas (kitchen and lounge) are located on one side of the house and have the morning sun. While the rooms are located on the other side and therefore have the sun in the late afternoon. A pretty garden surrounds the house. The large windows of the living areas offer a beautiful view of the fields, the cows shed and calves shed. Behind the house, at the end of the field is a small nature reserve on a hill. (This is one of the only places with relief of the Southland, the region is mostly flat).

The children are absolutely adorable little monsters (when they are not doing whims, hahaha). Chloe is the youngest. She’s a cute baby, with cheeks to melt hearts and two small baby teeth in the lower jaw. She likes playing with everybody, smile and jabber all the time. She does not like being left behind or hung in her baby seat in the car and doing nothing. During my two months in her company, I saw her grow, learn, begin teething (two others teeth appeared in the upper jaw) and even begin to crawl! I have also seen her being in a not so good state, because this little one has apparently too large tonsils that causes her misery and prevent her from eating properly. The multiple doctor visits have not being very effective. Only an operation could remove the problem. But as she’s still a very small baby with not enough weight, surgery to remove the tonsils is not recommended. So, it’s a vicious circle.

Isla is the oldest. She will be 5 years old on the 29th of October. She is a very pretty girl, amazing, full of energy and very intelligent. It only took a few hours between us to sympathize. She is my ninja companion (or trying to be a ninja, because for now she has not yet fully understood the principle of discretion). But Isla can also be a very authoritarian and manipulative diva. As soon as something does not please her, it’s endless crying. Therefore there is some friction between her and her mother. But I guess this is the case of many children especially at that age. Other than that, she is a future photographer (always poking my camera) who love living on the farm, dotes chocolate and who will start school in October.

On the side of the opposite sex, we have Carter, a little one of two years, who just learn the words “no” and “I” (among others). He and I are not of the same species, hahaha. Less familiar with me than the girls, Carter loves his dad and greatly appreciates helping with farm work. He and Isla tend to bicker constantly and rapidly turn into monsters when they are together. But, Carter, without Isla, is much easier to manage and more obedient. His favorite words are “Chock chock” (for chocolate) and he has a dozen of T-shirts with funky patterns that I would have like to have. During my stay, I saw him become more friendly with me and make great progress in formulating sentences.

In short, Isla, Carter and Chloe are small children, full of energy, very cute, who make silly things and cry all the time. In addition to working on the farm, I spent a few days as “au pair” to take care of children. I had never been too fond of young children (and I associate “having children” with someday perhaps as late as possible”), I must say that these three toddlers made my convictions waver. Yes, it took me a few weeks to adapt myself (my god, they scream and cry all the time!) but towards the end of my stay the noise and agitation almost didn’t bother me.

Carter, Isla and me - Dairy Farm - Southland - New Zealand - © Claire Blumenfeld

We laughed a lot, made nonsenses together and I had the impression of having new little brothers and sisters. (I have a little brother but he is 24 years old, so he’s not really young anymore). Many memories of my childhood were brought to the surface. They also taught me the basic kiwi vocabulary: chock chock (chocolate), yak, yummy, nana (banana), yiss, etc.

Living with the family also allowed me to go to the farm of Jeremy’s parents to see the newborn lambs, accompanying Isla to the kindergarten and probably discover all the shops of Winton (a small town near the farm) and Invercargill with Julie.

Living in a kiwi farmers family also means knowing how to use a gun. Indeed, most of the farmers of the region have one or two guns for hunting. Deer, rabbits, possums are considered pests in New Zealand (they are introduced animals that destroy the ecosystem and eat the eggs of native birds) and thus make the delight of farmers in search of prey. Knowing how to use a gun is also needed for the job since sometimes a cow will be killed (sick, too weak to eat, hurt after calving and unable to walk, etc.). I who refuse to kill animals / insects / plants (well except for spiders), I had trouble accepting the idea that one could kill a cow because she have difficulty walking or being hurt. But a cow that is not in her best shape, means a lot of lost time to look after her instead focusing on others and milking. If I have trouble to accept that, I understand the reality of the situation.

So, I got a family shooting session. We put targets (cartons, oranges and apples) in a distant field, without risk of stray bullet, at fifty meters of an improvised shooting range. Ear protection against noise and everyone took his turn (with the exception of Chloe of course!). Jeremy and Julie are good shooters and I am too. Well, as I did two years of Archery it was my honor to succeed. I killed my oranges at first time. Lying down (to support the weight of the gun), the gun in my hand, was a curious sensation. You can feel immediately the power and the danger evoked by the gun. I never liked weapons. Far too dangerous to let people wander freely with (as in half the countries of the world). But I’m happy to have tried. And paradoxically it made me want to start again Archery.

Working in a dairy farm

540 cows of the Friesian breed are present on the lands of the farm. They are cows in white dress with big black spots (some are completely black). This is a breed specializes in dairy production. When I arrived, it was the beginning of the calving season and heifers began to calve. It is one of the busiest periods of the year and that’s why there is a need of more employees.

Working in a dairy farm, especially in this season, means starting work at 4am. One person brings the cows, who spend the night in the paddock, to the cows shed for milking. Another person takes care of cleaning the milk tank and another go check heifers that have calved overnight. My first weeks of work, I accompanied Jeremy to go check heifers. In the dark night, with a frontal torch, we entered in paddocks, checked newborns and written the numbers of mothers. For a dairy farm, the heifers are the most interesting calves. Later in the day, we recovered all newborns to take them to a barn where they are separated by sex and them fed. Females are kept to grow. The male calves are sold. Some with oxen genes will be kept to become bulls and used for breeding. Unfortunately  most of the males calves are gonna end up in MacDonald’s burgers.

If most of the heifers calved herself healthy calves, some of them delivers stillborn, have calves dying during the night, or are struggling to calve on their own. In this case, Jeremy or one of the other employees (Ryan and Krissie) will take care of calving. This means reaching into the cow’s uterus to grasp the feet (front, preferably) of the baby and pull with all his strength to deliver the baby. It’s not very delicate to see. Observing a cow mooing with pain during calving is painful. Especially for a woman. A difficult calving can also cause complications on the side of the mother. I saw cows pushing so hard, that they pushed their uterus outside or who, because of a bad movement of the baby, found themselves with a pinched or damaged nerve. In the case of the outside uterus, just push it with your hand inside hoping that everything will be fine. When a cow is facing a nerve problem, most of the time, she finds herself unable to walk. We must therefore wait a few days to see if she will get better. Otherwise, I think you understand what will happen.

After a few weeks, my work in the morning was to bring the cows in the cows shed for milking. In late September, the cows had perfectly learned what they had to do. I arrived at the fence and they were waiting for me almost in line, mooing when they saw me. I opened the fence and they were moving by themselves quietly to the shed. No more need to go chasing the laggards through the paddock. Which in the dark, even with the quad headlights could be complicated.

One advantage to start so early, was the opportunity to attend  sunrise daily. I saw a whole bunch of different sky and it was always a wonder. Each sunrise is unique. The sky that turns pink, the appearance of light through the mist, a ray of sunshine on fields covered with morning frost … the short time where the sun seems to banish the darkness enveloping the world is similar as a new birth. Nature woke up and I felt reborn each morning.

View of the cows shed in the morning - Dairy Farm - Southland - New Zealand - © Claire BlumenfeldMorning frost - Dairy Farm - Southland - New Zealand - © Claire BlumenfeldOnce the cows gathered in the courtyard outside the shed, milking began. This usually took us from 5:30am to about 8:30am. The cows were loaded on a rotating platform where Jeremy, Ryan and Krissie generally put the milking machine (or cups) on the udders to pump milk. At the other end of the rotating platform, once the rotation is completed (fifteen minutes about by cow), I removed the milking machines and spray product to prevent infections on the udders. The cows then exit the rotating platform and went back by themselves to the paddock.

We began by milking cows producing milk and then the new mums cows producing colostrum (milk rich in protein). This milk can not be sold and is intended to feed the calves. In a perfect world, take care of milking the cows would be child’s play. Of course this is not the case as fear, boredom or simply because they are in bad mood, the cows (especially early in the calving season, at the end of the season, the cows have learned the routine and are much more docile) give kicks because they refuse that the milking machine is put or removed. And during their time spent on the platform, these dear ladies repaint the walls and floors of a nice brown color cow dung. Enough to say that maneuver to put or remove the milking machine of the udder of the cow is a work of craftsmanship: avoid splashing of fresh dung, keep an eye on the butt to monitor the movement indicative of the appearance of pee, quickly dodge a furious kick…

Beyond the joke, we must be particularly vigilant, because despite the protective bars fitted to the platform, sometimes a cow particularly scared give a violet kick. Take a kick like that on the hand or chest can be very painful. During a morning, one of the young-mum cows, was so worried that she mounted in the feeder surrounding the center of the platform (the cows receive molasses and protein during milking), which is normally impossible. I’m not telling you what a hassle it was to get her out of there. Especially since having used all her energy to penetrate into the feeder and emotionally striked by fear, our cow wouldn’t move anymore. Lots of time, ropes, and straps were required.

Aside milking that takes place early in the morning and in the afternoon,we had to feed the cows in the paddock(give them more hay and grass), setting new electric fences (electric shots guaranteed) or do for farm work. In New Zealand, farmers use quads (and bikes) tome around the farm. Cross a deadly muddy paddock with a quad: done. Gather cows with a quad: done. Set up an electric fence with a quad: done. The quad, the best farmers best friend. But be careful to not being silly, the quad is the vehicle that makes the most deaths in the farms. Indeed they are not very stable and tumble easily, trapping most of the time the driver under their weight.

Also in the farm tasks, in the early morning and late evening, Julie and Severna cared to feed calves. First step, go get colostrum (milk rich in protein) to the cows shed and warm up a bit. Indeed the milk from the udder is naturally warm. It is therefore necessary to warm up the colostrum from before give it to the newborns.
Heating the milk with Carter - Dairy farm - Southland - New Zealand - © Claire BlumenfeldSecond step, give the milk to the calves. To do this, we must learn to the newborns how sucking rubber teats. Once done, the calves feed alone. Simply pour the milk into the tray with rubber teats and the little ones rush over immediately. Severna takes care of feeding the great majority of calves. This usually take her 2 to 3 hours each morning and evening, especially when lots of calves were born during the night or day and she must learn to the newbies ho to suck. Severna is always accompanied by her dog, Mick who takes lots of fun playing with Fergus or lapping a few liters of colostrum. Julie handles the feeding of a dozen calves with beef blood (all with a white face) and therefore destined to become bulls.

Working on a dairy farm also means sheep. Yes, most farmers (when it is not their main business) have some sheep in the farm that give birth to lambs at the same period of the cows. Severna and Graham have some sheep and Jeremy’s parents, Jill and Murray have about hundred sheep. So, they brought some lambs to Jeremy and Julie farm, which greatly delighted the children. The first two lambs were even baptized Sparkle Princess and Lamb Lamb. So in addition to the calves we had to feed the lambs all the mornings and evenings. Their small fluffy faces are irresistible. One of my best memories was to take care of a newbie. The little female was born the morning, but her twin (lambs are usually born in pairs) was stillborn and her mom really not in great shape. Unlike calves who are quickly separated, lambs are usually left in the care of their mother. But as Mom was not feeling well, Severna had recovered the small lady and put her in her kitchen in a box filled with hay for her to warm up. Well, she was in top form at night, shouting that she was hungry. So, here it come, milk bottle and feeding. Feeling this little trembling and fragile animal in my hands while feeding her was a great experience.

Isla and Carter with lambs - Dairy farm - Southland - New Zealand - © Claire BlumenfeldWorking on the farm during the months of August and September also allowed me to witness the arrival of Spring! The tree began to sprout and wild daffodils were blooming everywhere.Spring and Daffodils - Dairy farm - Southland - New Zealand - © Claire BlumenfeldIf you’ve gotten this far and that you still have a little time for me, the rest of the article will talk about kiwi cuisine and will take you discovering Southland!