Farmer blessed with X-factor

JON MORGAN
Last updated 11:47 25/07/2013
Sue Wylie
JON MORGAN/Fairfax NZ

PLACID: Ratalea U2 looks on unconcerned as Sue Wylie inspects calves on her Hawke's Bay farm.

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Norm Wylie reckons he knows where his daughter Sue's uncanny ability to breed top simmental cattle comes from.

"It's genetics," he says. "It's from her mother's side. Her parents showed stock and had the gift."

Sue's friend, part-time employer and rival simmental breeder Tony Thompson says she has a natural empathy with cattle and sheep, and "she's got it in spades".

"We're very fortunate to have her in the district. We can give her an animal to show for us and she will get the very best out of it."

Sue, whose first foray into the show arena was as a 5-year-old at her school's calf day, is not one of those people who animals instinctively shy away from.

"I can walk out into my herd and they don't bat an eyelid."

The best thing about being able to "read" an animal is being able to sense what it will do next. "If you can stop it from doing something stupid, you're halfway there."

But she has seen their reactions to the people who don't have the gift. "There's a vibe the animal picks up on and they won't have anything to do with them."

Her father has a case in point. "Just talking can do it," he says. "We had a chap once who came to buy a bull. He had a loud speaking voice, the bulls looked up, heard him and the next minute they were down the other end of the field."

Father and daughter farm together at Ashley Clinton, close to the Ruahine Range in Central Hawke's Bay.

At 84 and recovering from a hip replacement that cut his sciatic nerve leaving him without feeling in a lower leg, Norm isn't as active as he used to be. But, otherwise, he is in good health, attributing a long-lasting fitness to the farm work of his formative years.

He remembers in the 1940s ploughing the fields of the family dairy farm at Marima, near Pahiatua, one furrow at a time walking behind a horse.

"It took a while, walking up and down across a 5-acre paddock. You had to be fit."

They supplied cream to the local factory and the skim milk byproduct was kept for their pigs. During World War II, whole milk was wanted for cheese and afterwards cream returned to favour.

The farm grew to 100 cows, a large herd up until the 1970s, and he knew each one by name and by the shape of their udders. One character was Blackie, a murray grey-friesian cross, who was so friendly she even allowed pigs to suckle her milk.

Cows were judged on looks alone, with milk production figures sketchy. He liked his cows to have a good fat cover and remembers being shocked by a Young Farmers Club judge who told him that if a dairy cow didn't have her ribs showing she wasn't a good producer.

He and wife Ngaire, who died four years ago, brought up three children on the farm. He milked night and morning seven days a week for more than 40 years and by the time he turned 60 was looking for a rest from 4.30am starts.

"I was wearing down and getting a lot of bleeding noses. But they stopped as soon as I stopped dairying."

They moved into sheep and beef on small farms before settling at Ashley Clinton in 1996. Norm says he's got "quite attached" to the 130-hectare farm, which has a Department of Conservation reserve in the middle of it.

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This close to the ranges, droughts are shorter, although he believes dairy irrigation has lowered the water table so the ground dries up quicker than it used to.

Sue now runs the farm, looking after the sheep and cattle, which includes two studs. They have 170 ewes lambing at 160-170 per cent, plus ewe and ram hoggets, and sell 30-35 suffolk stud rams a year for farmers looking for terminal sires.

The suffolks are big sheep, the ewes averaging 80-100 kilograms and the biggest ram was a giant of 174kg.

"You can't stop them if they're walking toward you," Sue says. "You just have to stand to one side."

They also have 40 beef cows, 10 of which are purebred simmental, plus weaners, and are grazing a small herd of heifers for Tony and Glennis Thompson's Glen Anthony stud at Waipukurau.

Sue has become a specialist at "fitting out" or preparing stud simmental cattle for shows, working at first for Masterton stud Trossachs and then Glen Anthony.

The simmental is a dual purpose beef- dairy breed which originated in Switzerland. It is used primarily as a beef breed in New Zealand but a herd of dairy simmentals is being milked in Taranaki.

The bulls are used over dairy cows to provide low birthweight calves that won't be so big they damage a valuable cow, but which then grow quickly. The Simmental Society promotes the bulls' value mated with angus cows, saying they give an extra 18kg of carcass from a 600kg steer - a premium of $81 an animal.

Sue started her small Ratalea stud with cows from Trossachs and Glen Anthony after growing to like their easy temperament and "eye appeal".

She wants to see a wedge shape when she stands behind a simmental bull. "It's about the genetics that will produce the next generation with a minimum of fuss," she says.

Body shape is highly hereditary. "What you want is a meaty rear end through to a good shoulder set and neck extension, which can't be too short or there will be calving troubles."

The way the bull walks and stands is critical to a show ring career. That is when a champion stands out. Some bulls have a hard-to-define X-factor, a supreme self-confidence that shows itself in the way they walk and hold their head.

"It's hard to explain it, but there's always a couple who catch your eye, who you keep coming back to. It's a total package - the walk, looking good and that X-factor. Everything fits into place."

Sue says such animals can be bred but more often they "pop up" out of nowhere in a herd.

"You start with something pretty good and you hope like heck you're going to get something better."

She and the Thompsons are among the last of what was once a busy community of breeders competing in cattle classes at agricultural and pastoral shows. She shows because "I like winning prizes", she says. "It's a reward, a recognition of my work. There's no money in it, it's just for the glory."

And to crow over the Thompsons when she wins. "It's a friendly rivalry. I'm keeping Tony on his toes."

Glen Anthony stud took 20 cattle to the Central Districts Field Days earlier this year and she took just one, a cow named Ratalea Yoyo, who had a calf at foot. Yoyo won the Beef and Wool Championship trophy for the best farm animal at the show. The calf, Ratalea Anchor, was named best bull calf and shapes as a future champion.

A couple of months later she prepared Zodiac, the Glen Anthony bull that won the Champion of Champions title at Beef Expo, the country's biggest cattle show.

Tony Thompson says she is a "marvellous stockwoman who has been a real brick in support of our stud. It was a great thrill for us when she won and even more so when she helped us win".

For the future, Sue says: "I just want to keep doing this for as long as I can."

- The Dominion Post

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