After 55 dockings, Kerry's still keen

JON MORGAN
Last updated 11:01 13/12/2012
Kerry Kennedy
JON MORGAN/Fairfax NZ
IN DEMAND: Kerry Kennedy with his hampshires. The early maturing lambs are bred to catch the high-priced Christmas trade.

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Kerry Kennedy stands up, leans forward, reaches back and pats his bottom. "This is where the meat is," he says.

He's talking about sheep, particularly the black-faced hampshire sheep that can be seen grazing in the paddock outside.

"It's the loin in the lower back that is the most valuable and these guys are very well developed there." He pats his bottom again. "They have what I call a deep back end, which means each buttock is well-formed."

It's a typically cool day under the mountain at Ohakune. A chilly southerly breeze is sweeping up the country and Ruapehu is hidden in misty rain.

But the 70-year-old has spent his life farming the cold country and this is a balmy day to him.

He paces the kitchen, anxious to get out. "I know," he says with a rueful smile. "I should be slowing down at my age but there's always plenty to do."

He is constantly called on by farmers and small block holders to help out. "I've had two 12-hour days already this week, mustering and yard work. It can be quite hectic."

And in between he has his own stock to look after - a few hampshire sheep and the remnants of a romney stud. They graze a four- hectare block beside the house he and wife Barbara are taking care of while it is sold by a family trust.

He first saw hampshires when he was at the Invercargill Royal Show in the mid 80s. "I was wandering around and saw their black faces. I went 'Jeepers!' They suddenly stood out. I leant over and ran my hand down their backs and felt all the meat. And they just stood there and let me do it - that was impressive. I hadn't seen anything like them before."

As soon as he could find a breeder with sound ewes, he bought some and began a 30-year love affair.

New Zealand has never had large numbers of the hampshire. It arrived with many other English breeds as the bush was giving way to farmland in the 1860s, but registrations lapsed in the 1900s. In 1952, new lines were imported and the breed was re-registered, reaching a peak of 3000 in the 1980s.

Now, Kennedy, vice-president of the Hampshire Society, estimates 900 registered ewes are on the 17 studs still left.

Their popularity waned over the last 10-15 years in the trend toward imported European breeds, but he is now seeing something of a revival. Hampshire rams are in demand as a meaty terminal sire producing early-maturing lambs.

"I've used a lot of different animals as terminals over the years and I've found these suit me," he says. He pats his bottom. "They've got the meat and they grow quickly, reaching 17.5kg carcassweight in 15 weeks, which is pretty good in the cold country. It means they catch the high-priced early Christmas trade."

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His lambs are bred to survive the harsh central North Island winters and springs, with their mothers chosen for their thick felty ears - a sign, he has found, that they also have thick hides.

They have fine, dense and springy wool, which has no black spots despite their black - actually dark chocolate brown - faces, ears and feet.

Another attribute, noted at his first encounter, is their relative calmness. "You can run them into the yards and they'll just stop dead and stand there - no flighty panicking, climbing over each other and leaping the rails. That's pretty rare."

He describes his ideal hampshire as like a front row rugby forward. "He's got real meat on him, with legs like tree trunks. I want an open face free of wool - a sheep's got to see where he's going - and a longish back."

It must also have sound legs. To explain, he props his hand on the table and bends the wrist. "This is the leg, the pasterns can't be too straight or too bent. The ram has to do a lot of walking and the legs have got to be positioned right so that they stride through truly." He strides up and down the kitchen to demonstrate.

He should know. He has seen a lot of sheep in his time, having just completed his 55th docking.

He grew up on the family farm at nearby Karioi, which was broken in by his Irish grandfather and his three brothers in the 1900s.

The 3600ha farm has since passed out of the family and he is the only son of the brothers' 33 children who is still farming, a sign, he says, of the growing rural- urban rift. His three children, two daughters and a son, are all on the land, however.

Sport was a big part of his youth. He played senior rugby as a flanker for 15 years, excelled as a track and field athlete - he still holds Raetihi's 220 yards (200 metres) record at 24.1 seconds and the high jump at 5ft 8in (1.72m) - and still competes at the Masters Games in shot put and discus.

Rodeo riding attracted his interest for a time and as he got older he moved into the popular rural horseback sport of polo- crosse. In recent years he has returned to dog trialling, another interest of his youth.

He left the home farm to widen his experience and eventually became manager of a big sheep and beef farm in the hill country inland from Otorohanga.

While there for 17 years he started his own romney stud and became a romney show judge. He then moved back to Karioi to manage an 800ha farm for 15 years till he was 64.

Ten years ago he bought a small 12ha property north of Taumarunui in preparation for retirement. "It's a lovely clean hillside, north-facing and warm, all grazable with a spring-fed water supply," he says. It is home to his 25 hampshire stud ewes, which he hopes to expand to 80, and other stock.

The key to farming in the cold country, he says, is to grow a nutritious winter crop - in his day it was swedes or choumolia - and a good stack of hay.

In his time he has seen the shape of sheep change.

In 1958, when he started as a shepherd, the sheep were "bouffy", he says. "They had wool from their eyes down to the ankles of their short legs. They were compact things covered with wool."

Then they began to change as wool prices fell and the income from meat rose. "Breeders cleared the wool from the faces so they could get around the countryside without falling into creeks and holes."

Tall, slabby sheep from the South Island with strong, lank wool were next to appear and changed the sheep further.

Wool was still considered important and as recently as 15 years ago almost every sheep had to have its "wig" shorn at the autumn crutching, he remembers.

"Now the current crop of farmers are producing a sheep of a nice medium size with good spring of rib, meat in the back end and high quality wool."

The word has got around that he is available for work and the phone rings regularly.

"I get asked to help because there's no young ones to do the job," he says. "They're not coming through like they used to."

He wonders if the high schools are doing enough to encourage the rural life. "It's a good healthy life and there's good money to be made. But you've got to be prepared to work. In winter, that means seven days a week. It calls for stickability - and not everyone's got that."

And with that he heads for the back door and out to the paddock where the hampshires and his eye dog Honey await.

- The Dominion Post

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