Sustainable half century, New Zealand

The Merino Review, December 2021.


IT’S OCTOBER 2021 AT MULLER Station up the Awatere Valley where shearing has just finished, they’re into their first week of lambing, and the grass has just started to grow. Back in April up the Acheron Valley, Muller Station owners Steve and Mary Satterthwaite, their two children Alice and Ben, and the wider mustering crew were out on the hills for the Muller Station autumn muster, taking the ewes back to the Awatere Valley for the winter months. At the time, Steve was hoping for a good spring after a two-year dry spell with just two months of growth. Spring certainly would have been welcomed a month earlier, but after the challenging winter they were served, it’s starting to come right now – at last.

“We are going to have a very good early summer. We missed out on spring but there is so much moisture around now so we just need the heat,” Steve says.

He’s positive the frosts have more or less finished which will serve well for 35 days (two cycles) of lambing. In fact, the first 10 days of lambing could not have been kinder. Spring coming a month late is not an isolated pattern. The clear message over the past few seasons is that autumns are getting longer, winters are going later and therefore spring is starting later which means a delayed summer. September served a record rainfall of more than 350mm. Put this against their annual rainfall of 500mm and that’s some serious precipitation. In July the Marlborough region suffered a severe rainstorm. Awatere Valley Road was closed for 10 weeks due to slips and damage, making it impossible to get to Blenheim which eliminated opportunities of getting feed in or stock out. Even now with the road reusable it will be closed to public use until at least Christmas while continuing repairs are made, Steve says. Due to the time of year, this road closure was more stressful for farmers than when the road was closed for 19 weeks after the earthquake in November 2017. The impact this time around on animal management and livestock was greater, he says.

“That (the winter storm) was a bit of a major, but we got through.”

Farmers talk about climate volatility and how to best work with it to suit their farming programme, he says. That conversation may need to include reconsidering dates like when to put the rams out or when to shear. “It is something we need to roll with and understand a lot more. We need to re-evaluate if we have it right.” Muller Station is 38,800 hectares, including 28,000ha of pastoral lease. The Satterthwaites operate a “fairly simple” system, due to having genuine summer and winter country. The Awatere Valley is good for lambing and winter grazing, and the Acheron Valley is great summer country. This absolutely minimises winter feeding and crop growing,” Steve says. The calves and studs get supplementary winter feed of ryecorn crop and lucerne balage but normally nothing else does. At baling time, they save cost by working in with neighbours Molesworth and Middlehurst Stations to get a contractor in from Blenheim. Muller Station runs 6500 ewes (including just under 600 stud ewes), 5500 hoggets, 100 rams and 2300 Angus-cross cattle. Steve and Mary first bought Merino genetics from Charinga Merino Stud in Victoria, Australia, in 2004. Their ongoing relationship with the stud has created a consistent breeding base, allowing them to focus on breeding the sheep they want. It began with selecting a commercial ewe mob of 200 reflecting what they liked – a good dual-purpose sheep – and they aimed for consistency from the outset.

“We were lucky that our ewes really clicked with the original two rams we brought in.” Since then, they’ve used several sires from other studs from Australia and New Zealand. “It’s about muscle, fat, conformation, the quality and quantity of the wool and trying to produce the ideal dual-purpose sheep. And with that comes fertility,” he says. “Being on the same page as our ram clients is huge, sharing with them our breeding direction, listening to them, and taking on board their feedback.”

Steve says Covid-19 has changed the way farmers buy genetics. Going to Australia to look at rams is not currently an option. Because of that, Muller Station started using artificial insemination over some ewes. This year, 100 out of the 550 mated were inseminated artificially. “It’s always exciting seeing how that goes; how many lambs we get, what they look like and how they grow.” The Satterthwaites are clients of neXtgen Agri, and Steve says the advice and logistical help they receive is invaluable. Despite Covid-19’s impacts, Steve says commodity prices are near all-time highs, with contract prices with the New Zealand Merino Company (40% of their income) and high beef and lamb schedules looking the best they have ever seen.

“In fact, commodity prices for the past three years have been some of the best I’ve experienced in my farming career.”

The wool boom in the 1950s is regarded as a great era in NZ farming, but the difference now is all commodities (fine wool, lamb, beef and mutton) are really strong. Steve says the farming sector must seek to build stronger relationships with urban NZ. He believes the NZ Merino industry is an exemplar of environmental management standards for farming. “If we can portray that unity with our New Zealand partners and the integrity that goes into these relationships, the potential has never been better.” He’s a strong supporter of quality assurance programmes like ZQRX, introduced by The New Zealand Merino Company, because they are independently audited.

“It’s about focusing on the environmental issues that we face, which is why we have to be so constructive and positive in the messages we portray.”

Wind the clock back to the days of high country field days which started in the 1980s. In the early 2000s it was hosted by Muller Station, a few hundred farmers and industry partners stood around chatting about the concept of sustainability in the high-country. “It really was a topic. Today the term regenerative agriculture has become the buzz- phrase, but simplistically we’ve been doing that for the last 50 years.” Steve says farming today is about being aware of change, and the need to change, industry wide. The challenge is finding the balance to farm productively and profitably, in a sustainable and biodiverse way.

See the article online here

Sustainable half century | With Belles On
Sustainable half century | With Belles On

Pushing for what he believed in, New Zealand

Country Wide Magazine, June 2021.


Farmers used to lose entire herds to TB in New Zealand. This is one recollection Rob Corboy has of his 47 year career in the TB game. He has recently hung up his syringe, and has plenty of stories to tell. From his extensive work with vector surveying to giving tips on how to catch ferrets, life has always been interesting. Originally from Nelson, Rob cut his teeth with the Department of Agriculture on the Brucellosis scheme in 1974. Later that year he trained as a TB technician, qualifying in early 1975. He was transferred to Westport, where TB was what Rob described as “rife.”

“Farmers were losing whole herds.”

There were 120 infected farms in the Buller and Inangahua districts at the time. From then and into the 1980s, TB technicians used to test herds three to four times a year, and in the early 1980’s freezing works would not accept TB reactors. “So we’d slaughter them ourselves. We did a lot of slaughtering, and we got pretty good at it.” The TB testing scheme used to be Government owned. Once it was discovered that possums carried TB, the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries (MAF) employed the New Zealand forestry service to kill all possums throughout the country. “We had five three-man teams in Westport, and five three-man teams in Reefton.” Their job involved laying poison bait, night shooting and trapping. “And it worked. By the early 1980s there were less than 10 infected herds in the Buller and Inangahua.”

It was in 1967 when a sick possum was found on a badly infected farm in Mokihinui on the South Island’s West Coast. Before that no one had really known how TB had spread to the cattle. The Government pulled the funding when numbers got low, thinking they’d “won the battle.” The numbers subsequently went through the roof again, at which time the Biosecurity Act of 1993 was set up, removing funding responsibility from the Government. Described as a ‘turning point’ by Rob, the Act changed TB control to an industry scheme, and TB was seen as a pest rather than a disease. When the Act was first set up, the control agency for TB control, the Animal Health Board, was very understaffed, so numbers rose again, in fact higher than they’d ever been, with 1800 infected herds nationally by end of the 1990’s. Thanks to the ambitious goals of the Animal Health Board, today less than 20 herds across New Zealand are infected. Despite his near 50 year career, Rob has only worked for one company which has gone under different names. After the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries became MAF Quality Management it was then split into two State Owned Enterprises – Agriquality and Asure, which merged 14 years ago to become what is now known as AsureQuality. Rob once read in an old report written by the Department of Agriculture, that TB has been known in New Zealand since 1898, in Banks Peninsula when dairy farming was big over there.

The antigen for TB testing was first used in the late 1950s, and all town supply dairy farms were initially tested. “Just prior to the use of the antigen, the stock inspector would run the stock through the yards. If a cow coughed, it was deemed to have TB and was slaughtered.” Rob’s job has seen significant changes. Paper to electronic systems being one, modifications to the test, TB testing deer as well as cattle to name a few. The short thermal retest finished in 1974 just as he started. “This was archaic. There was four millilitres of the TB antigen injected into the cow, (now it’s one tenth of a millilitre). They’d measure temperatures every two hours for a 10 hour period to see if the animal had TB.” In the late 1970s, the Comparative Cervical test was used as a retest. Two sites on the neck were clipped, one with a tenth of a millilitre of bovine TB antigen, one with a tenth of a millilitre of avian TB antigen.

“You can’t see avian TB, so we’d be able to see which if the bovine strain was present. ” TB is a family of mycobacterium, including the bovine, human and avian strains. Rob moved to Rangiora, North Canterbury in March 1990 after 15 years in Westport, along with his feral animal expertise. Possum surveying was a big part of his job, and in 1992 a TB infected ferret was found in the Mackenzie country, just after the 1992 snows.

“We then started talking about vector control, not possum control. In fact, up to 25% of the ferrets initially had TB, compared to 1:1000 possums.”

Instrumental in ferret control Rob was instrumental in setting up ferret control.

“I had to push for what I believed in.”

He was training farmers how to catch ferrets, they would ring him up and ask them to be tested. In response Rob set up two freezers in North Canterbury where farmers would drop them off for autopsy. “To catch a ferret you need to find a meat source, rabbit colonies works best. I’d tell the farmer not to put the trap off the track, because ferrets are lazy.” Rob created a feral animal TB database, which later proved to be very valuable for applying for funding for TB control. “It’s something I’m really pleased I did.” There were 50 farmer-run pest control groups in North Canterbury, Local Initiated Programmes with materials funded by the Animal Health Board. Agriquality staff including Rob were independent facilitators. What followed was extensive ferret and possum control work and a large number vector surveys throughout Canterbury. The idea was to “get in front of the TB, rather than chase it.”

That was part of the success story, and those North Canterbury pockets of TB infected pests never crossed to the south side of the Waimakariri River. Rob said Vector surveys, combining using TB testing, vector control and animal movement control, accountability for vector control through monitoring, and the use of 1080 (which Rob admits is very controversial) all contribute to the low number of TB cases in NZ now. He moved into management roles in early 2000s, at one point, managing all the field staff in the top half of South Island including Canterbury. A biosecurity manager and trainer as well as a TB trainer, auditor, animal welfare inspector, Rob’s career has been varied.

“I can even take blood from alpacas, which isn’t easy.”

Working with wildlife has been a major part of his career, and one he is passionate about.

“A lot of things we know now, is because of that (wildlife) research.”

The role of female TB technicians has increased a lot, and he has no doubt he is handing the reins over to safe hands when Oxford based TB technician Mel Brooker takes over his role as TB technician trainer and assessor.

See the article online here

Pushing for what he believed in | With Belles On
Pushing for what he believed in | With Belles On

Station beefs up on Science, New Zealand

Country Wide Magazine, June 2021.

A river running through Mt Algidus Station is just one of the challenges faced by station managers Peter and Christine Angland. Story and photos by Annabelle Latz.

 It is unruly and has no manners at all. Life at Mt Algidus Station is heavily governed by the Wilberforce River, so going home chariot style is everyday living for station managers Peter and Christine Angland. They took the helm of the 22130ha beef and sheep high country property in 2012, accepting the immediate fact that they cross the Wilberforce River only when it chooses for them to do so. Mt Algidus Station sits at the foot of the Main Divide in Canterbury, where the Mathias, Rakaia and Wilberforce Rivers meet. As the crow flies, from their house Peter and Christine are actually closer to the West Coast’s Hokitika than Christchurch. The couple had made the move north from Waipori Station in Otago, which they’d been managing for 14 years. Previously they’d been managing Half Way Bay Station on the shores of Lake Wakatipu for six years, and Peter was working on nearby Mt Nicholas Station for six years before that.

‘Everything comes down to the weather here – there is a lot of peering at weather maps to decide when various things are going to happen – getting contractors, stock, supplies and visitors in and out all depends on being able to cross the river,” said Christine, while setting up for a day of TB testing in four different yards across the flats. They have three children who are cutting their own futures in various industries; Lachie, 27, works in cropping on arable land near Rakaia, Campbell, 26, has just joined the navy as a pilot and Annabel, 25, works in viticulture at Peregrine Wines. Peter and Christine had visited the area several times before moving to Mt Algidus, previously picking rams at nearby Snowden Station. The area with its massive landscape and history struck a chord, so when the opportunity to manage it arose, they went for it.

“The potential this place has is huge.”

Full time assistant manager Mark Pilcher is a key part of the team with his huge range of skills. He comes from a varied farming background including outback Australia and dairy farming, but has embraced the high country way of life. Beef production has been a major focus, all keeping their eye solidly on their goal of breeding efficient cows. They currently calve 1300 cows including 2 year-old calvers, and winter 2680 cattle in total, after selling mainly annual draft and finished 18-month-old cattle with some stores recently with the change in TB status.

“Our tail end 18 month old cattle stay another winter to help with tidying up poorer quality pasture in the summer.” Predominately the Anglands breed straight Angus cattle, with some Charolais and Hereford bulls in the mix to add some hybrid vigour going over the less desirable cows.

DNA technology

Peter said DNA technology will be a huge benefit for them achieving their breeding goals for the future improvement of the herd. All their heifers are home bred, and as the DNA records build it will be great help for making informed breeding decisions. “We can now use the estimated breeding values (EBVs) for the heifers to match to the bulls to improve their indicated weaknesses. In the next five to six years we will have a DNA profile on most of our cows, including both hybrid and purebred stock. That is pretty exciting,” said Peter. For the Anglands, breeding an efficient cow means calves that are not too big at birth, cows that are fertile, moderate sized with positive fats. Good 600kg Day Weights and intramuscular fat are now also being brought into the mix to improve carcase quality and size without hopefully increasing cow size too much. They have started breeding their own bulls using semen straws from Te Mania Angus stud, and really like what they are seeing with the offspring.

“Breeding and DNA testing our own heifers costs no more than buying a team of 12 or so bulls which we were needing to do each year and gives us access to better bulls than we could otherwise afford . DNA data can be a very useful tool and compliment progeny testing. It is just another tool to use when making breeding decisions.”

Sheep are another component at Mt Algidus. When the Anglands arrived 12 years ago most of the sheep had just been sold with only 260 MA ewes and 600 ewe hoggets remaining. This had been done due to a TB outbreak and not being able to sell store cattle as had been the practice so something had to give for feed reasons. The property has just completed its fourth clear whole herd test. Sheep numbers have been built up again to help with pasture management and weed control, and ewe numbers are slowly rising with ewe lambs retained as replacements and the balance of lambs mostly finished. The Anglands’ farm 3800 sheep, mainly Perendale ewes, mating the hoggets to Dorper crosses.

“This has led to easy lambing in the hoggets and the lambs grow and yield well,” said Christine.

Anything showing any sign of feet problems is managed with trimming and footbathing then mated to a Texel Suffolk cross ram for the rest of their time on the Station. Mt Algidus on average receives 1180mm of rain per year, with the Main Divide just behind them receiving as much as six metres.

“One December, there was one metre of rain in five days at Browning Pass on the Divide,” said Peter.

The high country farming scene has certainly seen some shifts over the years, with proposed changes in Government legislation and local body plans.

“It’s a matter of finding a happy medium, finding a way to work together and making science-based decisions.”

He and Christine have worked out their own refined grazing and pasture renewal programme. Generally it was swedes, followed by kale, then sowing back to pasture on the more productive country. Now, with the proposed slope and resowing “rules” in regards to winter cropping, some winter crops are being grown out in the stonier flatter areas of the farm which means more crop needs to be grown as the yields are not as good on this soil type. Rape and turnips are being autumn sown in these areas as this class of land is summer dry. Fencing off waterways with gravity fed stock water systems from mountain streams has been part of the great synergy they work hard on. 

There are also five QEII Reserves at Mt Algidus, which help maintain the special vegetation pockets, with two more in the pipeline. Ron Halford is another pivotal name within the essential working cogs at Mt Algidus Station. The Otaki-based farm adviser has been helping pave the way of high country farming success here for a decade. He already knew the area well, as had been farm advisor on nearby Lake Coleridge Station and Acheron Bank Station, for Bruce Miles. Ron visits the Station every two to three months, spending a couple of days with Peter and Christine as they collectively talk about the issues of the day, discuss the next quarter, review the financials, and make any required adjustments, to make those bottom line profits. When he first joined the ranks at Mt Algidus, there was a big focus on increasing cattle numbers and reducing sheep numbers, and over time increasing sheep numbers again. The big goals have remained the same, including managing water, increasing cattle numbers by building up a sufficient breeding herd, and looking after the environment in the form of retiring land when required, and fencing off significant waterways and land areas of significant conservation value. Ron said it is absolutely important to have the right staff on the ground, and this Station is proof of this.

“Their enthusiasm and drive has allowed us to achieve what we wanted to, it’s a great team at Mt Algidus.”

Government complexity

It comes as no surprise that the increased level of Government legislation and rules imposed adds layers of increased complexity to their meetings. “Having to crop greater areas comes at a cost, and yields can come down. But you can’t do much about Government legislation and at the end of the day, the law is the law. You have to farm within that, even if most farmers work hard to leave the land in a better place than they found it anyway.” Ron said Mt Algidus is “right up there” with its beef production programme. “The in-calf rate is very good, as is the calving percentage. It’s about good on-farm management and having cows in peak condition at the right time.” Finishing carcase weights are not quite where they want them to be yet, but this is a continual development and they are certainly heading in the right direction. Variation in pasture quality is part of the reason, and they are all working hard to improve soil fertility and pasture species as more land is brought in as part of the farm development side of things.

“We would like to add another 10 to 15 kilograms to carcase weights, which is part breeding, part genetics. When you’re finishing 500 to 600 beasts a year, that is quite significant.”

Ron very much looks forward to his regular visits. “It’s a unique place, and a really good place to visit. I find it relaxing, working with great people is a privilege really.” Ron flies to Christchurch, drives through Inland Scenic Route 72, straight to the riverbed and gets a lift across the Wilberforce River by Peter or Christine behind their tractor. “I have been helicoptered in too, that river certainly rules what can and can’t be done.” They are confident their focus on fine tuning the current management system, improving pasture production and quality and measuring the economics of the net product going out the gate, is the best way forward.

“We are always learning, and always open to suggestions and ideas.”

Peter and Christine and Mark manage the place like it is their own, and after spending a day in the yards with them, the proof is evident.

“Farm management is not a rehearsal, you have to give it your best shot,” said Peter.

See the article online here

Station beefs up on Science | With Belles On
Station beefs up on Science | With Belles On
Station beefs up on Science | With Belles On
Station beefs up on Science | With Belles On

Appreciating it all, New Zealand

Country Wide Magazine, August 2021.

Words and pictures by Annabelle Latz

The Satterthwaites of Marlborough recently mustered their Merino flock together for the first time as a family. This year’s autumn muster was one for the history books for the Satterthwaite family at Muller Station in Marlborough. Parents Mary and Steve and their two children Alice and Ben were for the first time ever as a family, bringing the 4500 Merino ewes out of the Acheron Valley and into the Awatere Valley for the winter months. The 1800 two-tooths had been mustered in earlier, due to the drought. In years gone by, boarding school, university and work commitments, or living abroad has meant one of the children has always been preoccupied during this iconic week of the annual farming calendar. Alice, 24, has taken the reins of head shepherd for the time being, and with mentoring from Steve will move into the role of stock manager. Her plan is to learn as much as she can, before handing the tuition reins over to her little brother Ben, 21, while she heads away for a stint to learn some more skills either in another part of New Zealand or overseas.

“I haven’t done the North Island yet, and it’s something I want to do to gain more knowledge in different areas. The idea is to come back home eventually.”

Ben is enjoying time back home on Muller Station, having recently finished his studies at Lincoln University. He’s soon heading north to Gisborne to learn the ways of East Coast station life. Alice is thoroughly enjoying stepping up in the responsibility ranks at Muller Station, especially on the autumn muster with the whole family and their two permanent shepherds involved. “It’s the highlight of the year, the tradition of being out here doing it, enjoying both the physical and mental challenge.” Organising the team and the beats on the muster provided Alice an opportunity to muster some country for the first time.

“It’s great to gain some experience and knowledge from dad, so one day when he’s not here I can run the camp myself.”

Alice has always known the farming sector is her career calling, and although at boarding school in Christchurch she enjoyed team sports during the week, nothing jeopardised her ability to head home for as many weekends as she could to lend a hand on the farm. After school she headed to Clayton Station in Fairlie, South Canterbury for a year. This was followed by stints abroad including working on a cattle station in Derby, Western Australia which she “absolutely loved,” time on sheep studs in South Australia and New South Wales, back to the South Island for two seasons on Muzzle Station, Kaikoura Ranges, and time in England working on an estate in Hambleden, Henley on Thames, an hour south-west of London. Alice has always enjoyed her stints back home on Muller Station, the world of high country isolation with her team of dogs marking her favourite place.

“I love the feeling of just being out there, in what seems like some pretty untouched uninhabited country, almost getting the sensation that you are the only one who has been there.”

Sheep genetics is of huge interest to Alice, and she was very involved in the Marlborough two-tooth competition earlier this year, which Muller Station won. Muscle and fat makeup and conformation are a continual focus in the breeding operation at Muller Station. Alice said selecting objectively measured genetics at both a commercial and stud level has made significant progress in sheep performance and health, therefore helping to boost the bottom line. “The incorporation of ASBV’s (Australian sheep breeding values) along with selecting for phenotype has really boosted muscle and fat and therefore fertility and do-ability across the stud and commercial flocks, without compromising on wool quality and quantity.”

At the competition, Alice spent some time with Dr Mark Ferguson, the man behind NeXtgen Agri and the podcast Head Shepherd. His ethos is one that resonates with Alice; ‘Farming in our hearts, science in our heads.’ She says some people don’t know what to do with breeding values and how to incorporate them into their breeding operation to make their sheep more profitable. NeXtgen has created a platform whereby people of all backgrounds can make use of the team’s objective knowledge.

“It’s great to gain some experience and knowledge from dad, so one day when he’s not here I can run the camp myself.”

Muller Station is a NeXtgen client, and they work closely with Will Gibson who helps to class the sheep and analyse the data side of the stud flock. Alice said this data is invaluable, as individual sheep are assessed on both phenotype and genotype along with their maternal history. All the scanning material, complete breeding history, number of lambs weaned, (bred vs weaned, which helps with decisions about what to keep), and estimated breeding values are all gathered. “We class the hoggets before we class the ewes, so we can see whether it’s a good lamb or not, was it the right sire, was it a lazy mother, and assess the weaning weight.” The Merino industry is one that Alice says is an exciting one to be part of, with lots of space for the future especially in the areas of sustainability and the environmental enhancement.

“I think it’s a pretty safe industry to back; who knows what we will be using Merino wool for in 10 years’ time?”

The approach to Merino farming is much like the approach to anything someone has a desire and passion for. “If you have a keen interest, and a bit of a ticker behind you, just go for it.” Alice’s mum Mary said the love Alice has for farming life has been obvious since she was in a pram. During one autumn muster many years ago, Alice rode her pony Pepper all the way through to Munroe Hut, but riding any further was deemed too much for the infant. “She wasn’t allowed to ride through the Munroe Saddle, so she cried all the way home. I remember she used to sit on Steve’s pommel, she was basically born on a horse.” Despite the challenges of high country life, whether it be the weather or the market trends, it’s the sense of achievement after a good day on the hills that will always drive Alice to be where she is ultimately happiest.

“It’s when you’re out on the hill and you come in … and feel truly lucky to be here, sitting on the veranda with a beer in your hand.”

See the article online here

Appreciating it all | With Belles On
Appreciating it all | With Belles On

Becoming a practical Kiwi, New Zealand

Country Wide Magazine, November 2021.

Alternating artificial insemination with veterinary nursing keeps Scottish migrant Kim Armstrong busy. Words and photos by Annabelle Latz.

 IT’S A LITTLE BIT OF THE SURVIVAL of the fittest in New Zealand when it comes to breeding cows. Kim Armstrong is an artificial breeding technician in North Canterbury for LIC, a transition from her vet nurse career which she began in her homeland of Scotland before venturing here six years ago. As the place where she grew up on a sheep and beef farm which later was converted to a dairy farm, and where she began her career, Kim has been very aware of the difference between breeding systems in the United Kingdom and NZ. One example Kim used was that NZ farmers might not spend or have the budget for vet expenses like caesareans, compared to the UK where it seems to be common.

“New Zealand farmers appear to have a more practical breeding system, compared to the UK where it’s about bigger and faster-growing carcases.”

Along with seasonal work such as teat sealing and disbudding, AI technician work means the busiest time of the year is upon her, being October to December which can extend into January. The 32-year-old says the key to her job is to respond as quickly as possible to each farmer with precision and speed to get on to the next farm and do it all over again. Speed is important with this job as the window for the heat is only 12-18 hours, every three weeks. As the herd is brought in from the paddock the farmer selects cows that appear to be more active, bulling, wrestling, showing discharge from the vulva, have riding marks, and some may even have small wounds on their pin or tail bones, hoof marks, mud or slobber on their sides. “These are all signs of a cow on heat.” Bad weather can make it difficult to identify any cows on heat due to their lack of movement in the paddock in cooler temperatures. Tail painting is a method farmers use, which Kim says works well as rubbed off paint is a sure sign.

“Some farmers will start with one colour of tail paint, then change the colour after I have inseminated the cow to see how many times she has cycled or been inseminated.”

Kim says some farmers with smaller herds will have their own banks of semen and do their own AI work, but a lot say it’s too much pressure and not fast enough. “There are plenty of opportunities if you miss a heat, however, it’s ideal to get the herd as close together as possible to reduce the amount of time calving.” Kim will AI hundreds of cows a day, and accuracy is vital. “A great deal of AI’ing is about placement, it has to be 100% accurate.”

Farmers register their cows on the LIC database, which has a range of bulls to choose from where they look through prices, type, weights and gestation periods. “I think New Zealand has a practical view on their breeding systems.” Outside of her AI technician role, Kim is back at her local vet clinic as a veterinary nurse three to five days a week. During autumn through to June, she is kept busy teat-sealing cows, she gets her ‘lull’ during June and July, then disbudding starts in August and takes her through to the AI season.

“September and October are busy too with pre-mating, metri-checking and calving. It all fits in quite nicely for me.”

Kim thoroughly enjoys the variation of her jobs throughout the year, which has been a natural progression from vet nursing. “I love it all, the practical, social and physical aspects. It’s quite rewarding.” It was when she was still in Scotland she began helping a friend with AI work in 2014. “I knew the money was pretty good and I could work in New Zealand with that skill. I was also really interested in genetics.” Hailing from southwest Scotland’s Wigtownshire in Galloway, Kim began her vet nurse career at the Academy Vet Centre in Stranraer, Galloway, in 2009.

In 2015 she came to NZ for what was initially a three-month trip, based in Gore, Southland, working as an AI assistant. This trip turned into 10 months travelling around most of the lower South Island then moving to North Canterbury where she worked as a vet nurse at Rangiora Vet Centre. In 2019 Kim spent four months back in Scotland for some family time and a lambing season, and looking back now, is so grateful. “I was so lucky to get back home pre- Covid to see family and friends. I’m not sure when I will see them again.” Coupled with her role as an AI assistant, she further developed an interest and in 2020 undertook her apprenticeship.

“It’s been quite a ride,” Kim grins.

Apart from a couple of winter escapes, NZ has been her base ever since, and Oxford in North Canterbury is where she now calls home. Slotting into Kiwi life has been pretty straightforward for Kim. She competes and hunts her horse Zeus, thoroughly enjoys Kiwi people and culture, spends much of her spare time hiking and biking in the mountains, and is training for the Two Day Coast to Coast with her partner Joe.

“I like to keep fit and healthy, and enjoy a good social life too.”

See the article online here

Vet Farmer and Athlete | With Belles On
Vet Farmer and Athlete | With Belles On

Keeping the working dogs naturally cosy, New Zealand

Country Wide Magazine, April 2021.


It was mid June 2020, sleet was falling, and Billy Dowle looked out the window from his cottage in Scargill, North Canterbury to see his mainstay Huntaway, Earl, sleeping in his dugout next to his kennel, rather than on the hard wooden floor. Earl obviously needed a new bed. Billy and his partner Annabelle Chilwell headed out to buy him a new bed, but were disappointed to only find expensive synthetic ones, and nothing offering them a natural product. “So I decided to make one myself,” Annabelle says, who grew up around wool and sewing machines as her mother had a woollen clothing business in Boyup Brook, Western Australia.

Before long, they’d headed down the path of researching canvas and wool-fills. It was a bit of a case of trials and tribulations to find the right canvas, to ensure it was one that did not create condensation inside the kennel. In a matter of weeks, the team of working dogs Pip, Nui, Earl, Floss, Gin and Squirt all had their own canvas wool-filled beds, and loved them. Both Billy and Annabelle were casual farm workers in North Canterbury, and were moving to Benmore Station in the MacKenzie Basin where Billy was taking the position as stock manager.

They’re now the proud owners of dog bed and dog coat company, Natural Hound. Launched in December 2020, the first couple of months of production have been scary, busy, full of lessons, and most of all, exciting. “We’ve had a lot of support from farmers which has been really cool,” Annabelle said. Billy said gaining confidence in what they do has been a major factor. Early days saw them questioning whether to buy three metres of canvas to test a few out, now they’re looking at bulk orders. After buying the first canvas he had 10 cents left in his bank account. He said to Annabelle, “We are really going to have to make this work!” The first few orders were from friends, and they still remember the buzz they got from the first website order received in mid-December. The word about Natural Hound has mainly been spread through social media, and they’ve been rolling out 10-20 beds a week ever since. This keeps Annabelle busy as she’s a part-time casual farmhand and part-time dog bed manufacturer. She cuts the canvas in Scargill and sends the items to Christchurch to be sewn. These are returned to her and she fills them with a wool-polyester blend. “The little bit of polyester in the inner enables the bed to maintain its loft and stops the wool from compacting. It also makes the beds a bit lighter to move. We’re looking at natural alternatives for this, like bamboo and hemp.”

The market is mainly around the South Island at the moment, although they would like to look into the North Island, and eventually Australia and the US.

The other part of their business is the woollen felted and canvas dog coats, which they launched at the local A&P Shows in March and April around Canterbury. Annabelle sewed these herself. Beds range in price depending if they come filled or not; $90-$120 or $110-$160. The coats will range from $75-$85. They offer a 15% discount when buying three or more. They didn’t share their cost of production but did say if they put them into retail stores they would have to up their price by 100%.

Billy said it was a great feeling to be supporting the strong wool industry, because it’s a quality resource that has so many uses. He remembers about a month ago when a farmer placed an order for one bed for his bitch who’d just had a litter of pups. He contacted them soon again afterwards to ask for a bulk order. “That to me is saying a lot. If you get your dog a bed and they really love them, you know you’re onto something.” Animal welfare is becoming a big thing on farms and nearly gone are the days where work dogs live in cold drafty kennels. Farmers are also starting to realise the long term benefits of dog health by looking after them. “Products don’t need to be a designer label made from wool adding to the price tag. Our products are locally made and filled/lined with New Zealand strong wool and we still manage to be price competitive against synthetic products and maintain a high NZ quality standard.” With autumn around the corner and the air temperatures soon to drop, they’re both looking forward to launching the coats. “It all goes back to that moment when we said to each other ‘Are we going to do this?’ And we’re so pleased we did,” said Billy. •

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Keeping the working dogs naturally cosy | With Belles On