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40 Million Sheep

Sheep Wrestling and Cattle Wrangling

NEW ZEALAND | Wednesday, 17 April 2013 | Views [814]

My HelpX experiences did not end in Wanaka.  After leaving the kennels, I hitched a ride down to Invercargill - a booming metropolis in the deep south of New Zealand.  The Southland region is home to two types of people - sheep farmers and dairy farmers.  I wouldn’t classify it as a cultural melting pot.

 I was picked up from our designated meeting place by Keith; an older man who works for Darrin and Jo (my new hosts).

 “You’ll be Gill then” he says, more as a statement than a question.  “I don’t know where you’re going to put all that rubbish (referring to my pack)”

 I didn’t quite know how to respond to this comment.  Did he not expect me to show up with any belongings?  I’m not a hobo.  Yet. 

 The obvious place for luggage storage would have been the trunk, but Keith had showed up in a tiny Hot Wheels sized truck, with a flatbed back.  Feeling that this choice of vehicle showed some lack of common sense on his part, I crammed myself into the tiny cab, rubbish and all.

 “So you’re the new help then” said Keith, eyeing me appraisingly.  “Hopefully you’ll turn out better than the last one.  Bloody useless she was.  You’re not a vegetarian are you?”

 “Oh…um, nope.” I said.  “No, I eat meat.”

 “Good” said Keith.  “Vegetarians never seem to be able to do much.”

 Once again I was left unsure how to respond. 

 The rest of the car ride passed without incident, and we soon arrived at the house.  Mark and Mary, my hosts from Wanaka, have the ability to make you feel at home and welcomed as soon as you arrive.  Darrin and Jo do not have this ability.  My first night there, they alternated between ignoring me completely, and throwing out random questions about my life and travels. 

 “Have you worked on a farm before?” asked Jo.

 “No, I haven’t” I admitted.  I started to launch into an amusing anecdote about family reunions at my grandparents farm, but Jo had already lost interest, and had moved on to a new topic involving cows and penicillin. 

 I got the impression that Darrin and Jo were waiting to see if I was useful before making an effort to talk to me.  Although it seemed like a pretty low standard, I quickly resolved to be more helpful than their last worker - the “anorexic vegetarian.”

 Ten minutes later, Jo turned to me again.  “What’s your opinion of sheep?” she asked.

 Opinion?  Sheep…are sheep.  My opinion is that they are sheep.

 Worried that this might be some sort of test, I offered a diplomatic response about my neutrality on the sheep issue. 

 “Well, I bet you’ll have an opinion after tomorrow!” said Jo, somewhat ominously.

 How right she was.  My impression of sheep as the animal equivalent of a fluffy cloud was smashed after I spent the next two days wrestling them into submission.  This adventure began early the next morning, as we started the crutching process.  For those of you unfamiliar with this term, crutching is a pre-shearing process that involves scraping off the poop-incrusted wool near the butt area.  Lovely. 

 My role in this operation was to manage the gate leading to the sheep holding device.  In theory, the sheep pass through this gate one at a time, where they are then held in place by the device as the shearer shaves their butts.  At first, I thought that I was being shafted with this assignment.  Really?  Door holder?  A child could do that.  As it turns out, the job of gate operator was one of endless excitement and occasional danger. 

 The sheep were not happy.  They did not appreciate being herded into the holding pens, and they certainly did not want to be forced up the line towards the shearers.  Consequently, each sheep had to be dragged up to the gate, where it would then charge ahead, trying to leap over the restraining device.  The other sheep would attempt escape through the unguarded gate, or over the sides, or back down the ramp.  Thankful for my background in martial arts, I managed to restrain the surprisingly heavy animals with a combination of threats and headlocks.  Two thousand sheep later, we were done for the day. 

 The crutching process lasted for the next several days, and then we went back to normal farm operations.  My jobs included:

-Driving around on an ATV, looking for dead sheep

-Picking up dead sheep and putting them in a pit

-Looking for cast sheep.  This is the sheep equivalent of “Help! I’ve fallen and I can’t get up!”

-Drenching lambs.  This does not translate to hosing down lambs or giving them a bath, as I initially thought, but instead refers to squirting a de-worming liquid down their throats. 

-Tackling sheep.  Darrin identified some sheep that were infected with something and it was my job to corner and catch them, and then drag them into the trailer.


Welcome to the farm.  


While most of my time in Southland was spent doing sheep related things, I also helped out on the small dairy farm managed by Jo.  For about five days around the New Year, the two regular milking staff were on holiday, so Jo and I took over.  I will never be a dairy farmer.  I’m even a little surprised that I still drink milk.

 The farm had about 350 cows that needed to be milked twice a day.  The first milking started at 5:30 am.  I’m not exactly my best self in the mornings, and the prospect of spending the next four hours avoiding, stepping in, and sometimes touching cow poop did nothing to improve my mood.

 Let me describe the milking process to you.  About twenty cows are herded into and lined up on either side of a pit containing the equipment.  Jo called this area the milking pit.  I called it the pit of despair.  Hanging from the ceiling and connected to pipes were the suction cups.  We would attach these cups to all of the cows on one side of the pit, wait for them to finish, and then transfer the cups to the other side.  It is not a hard job.  It might actually be an enjoyable job, if you weren’t in constant danger of being pooped on.  Cows poop a lot.  I cannot emphasize this enough.  So. Much. Poop.  The poop gets everywhere.  Splattered on your clothing, on your gloved hands, on the milking cups, on the railings, and on the floor.  It is impossible to avoid.  Jo’s advice to me was “Keep your mouth closed.”  I followed this advice so completely, it probably looked like I had lockjaw.

 We continued like this for the next five days.  While not exactly an enjoyable experience, it was certainly a memorable one.

Tags: cows, helpx, new zealand, sheep

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