Hawke's Bay woman juggles running a farm as well as family

A Hawke's Bay woman laughs when people ask to speak to her husband about every-day decisions on the farm. Kate Taylor interrupted her at work in the sheep yards to find out why.

Caroline Smith drafts cull ewes.
Kate Taylor

Caroline Smith drafts cull ewes.

One of the first things Hawke's Bay farmer Caroline Smith does when she stops for a cup of tea after drafting cull ewes is to breastfeed baby Clara.

She juggles looking after a young family and farming 240 hectares and loves it, although one of her pet hates is having people phoning on farm business asking to speak to her husband.

"They assume it's not me running the farm. I say they can speak to my husband if they like but he's an electrician so might not be too helpful for the information they're after."

South devon cows on the hills of Chipinga in the Waitara Valley.
Kate Taylor

South devon cows on the hills of Chipinga in the Waitara Valley.

While the couple share overall responsibility and Geoff physically handles the deer, the running of the farm is Caroline's domain.

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She runs 50 mixed breed cows, 400 romney ewes and 165 hinds (plus 15 replacements) on 210 effective hectares on Waitara Rd, off State Highway 5 near Te Pohue. The goal is to increase the number of deer paddocks on the farm before increasing hind numbers.

Caroline Smith juggles farming with caring for daughters Clara and Holly.
Kate Taylor

Caroline Smith juggles farming with caring for daughters Clara and Holly.

With sharemilking parents, Caroline grew up on dairy farms around the South Island. But she didn't start farming as a career until July 2014 when she and Geoff leased his family's property, Chipinga.

They had travelled overseas together before working in Hastings while Geoff qualified as an electrician. Then they faced the decision of taking over the farm or face it being sold.

"That first year we left it pretty much as it was just so I could learn the ropes and learn more about what made the property tick, such as its weather. It's great though; my No 1 shepherd is my father-in-law Malcolm, who stays in his cottage by the woolshed when he's up."

Malcolm and Nancy bought the farm in 2008 and have retired to Hastings. Geoff working in town has helped with kindergarten runs for four-year-old Holly and Caroline relishes Wednesdays off the farm – her Te Pohue Playcentre day with both girls.

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She worked on the farm until she was 36 weeks pregnant with Clara, although she admits she stopped tractor work about a month before that because it was too hard to climb in and out of the cab.

"I just wanted one more step really," she says, laughing.

"Then I did lambing beats with a drone when Clara was little and couldn't come on the farm with me. Geoff uses it for the deer too. We're both certified to fly it. Holly loves coming on the farm too. She was my dog when she was little, although I've built a team of the real four-legged variety now."

She says child care is a team effort.

"If Geoff's starting late then I can do something early or if I'm doing something small then I take them both out with me."

Caroline says her dairy farming background led to her first serious management decision since taking over the lease.

"I culled the cows from 85 down to 50. Calving went from 76 per cent to having 50 cows with 50 calves in the 2015 calving season."

She bought in a low birthweight south devon bull from the Kearneys' stud at Elsthorpe for the yearling keeper heifers, which this year calved five from five.

"Malcolm had been buying south devon bulls for years but the cows were a mix of angus, south devon and hereford when I arrived. Now we only keep polled full south devon or full red heifers for replacements. The aim is to buy registered bulls to take five-plus years to build up a stud herd."

Caroline's parents had ayrshire cows on the dairy farm including a 2004 South Island ayrshire champion.

"The stud breeding aspect is another farming interest for me," she says.

She is still tweaking ewe numbers, which sit at 400. Rams are bought from the Wairere Romney Stud.

Despite no sign of facial eczema on the farm last year, the lambing percentage dropped from 148 per cent to 120 per cent (the neighbours' ewes did have facial eczema).

"Before lambing the ewes are up in our big boundary paddock and we bring them down to the road paddock before they start.

"We open the gates as they need fresh grass and they make their own way through. The early lambers obviously make their way through first. We scanned the ewes but only had 45 singles. I was thinking of leaving the lates on the hill a bit longer but, again, it depends how many we have."

Lambs are sent directly to Affco if up to weight or otherwise sold privately and as stores.

As Caroline and Geoff find their feet on the farm, the goal is to reduce sheep numbers in favour of more deer.

The farm has 165 mixed-age hinds plus 15 R1 hinds as well as four breeding stags. Seven of its 19 paddocks are deer fenced but two don't hold deer, so subdivision and more deer fencing are high on their agenda.

The deer policy is to breed fast-growing fawns to sell from the property as soon as possible, while keeping the temperament and size of hinds to a user-friendly size.

"Increasing the number of paddocks will help us finish our own fawns, which the farm used to do but not to satisfactory weights," she says.

"Our current focus is to rear as many weaners to the highest weaning weight for live sale in March."

As well as handling the deer, Geoff also has an interest in bees and has recently introduced several hives to the farm.

"We're seeing an improvement in the clover where the bees are, although that could be because of my improvements in the fertiliser programme, too," Caroline says.

The farm was previously serviced by Outgro and has now changed to iFert.

"I phoned all the companies but I chose to deal with Cory at iFert because it was a one stop shop whether we use a plane or chopper or spreader. All I have to do is phone Lloyd next door for permission to use his airstrip.

"We have a three-year lime and fertiliser plan to take us to the end of 2017 and then we'll take a year off from the programme to pay for the yards to be done up.  That is for both efficiency and safety. We scan and TB test the cows in April and it's just too muddy in there."

Other plans include a 5ha manuka planting programme over a big slip and fencing and planting three hectares that include a 2ha lake and marshy wetland area.

"There's a taniwha in the lake too… a big eel that has obviously come up out of the Mohaka River."

Caroline says she's not scared to ask for advice and often does.  On matters relating to either the farm or the children there's a Facebook page called Farming Mums NZ where she can ask for advice from some of the 8260 members around the country.

"As well as Geoff, there's also Malcolm and my dad Pat, who visits from Timaru when he can, my sister Wendy and brother-in-law Glen, our neighbour Paul Whiteside on the farm next door and Jason the vet. I ask them for advice and make up my own mind about what feels right. It's a team effort."

 - Stuff


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