On the Land
Award-winning Hawke's Bay farmers run a simple farming system and make sure it runs like clockwork. Jon Morgan reports.
As winter twilight turned to night on his friend's remote Hawke's Bay farm, Michael Hindmarsh lay in the cold mud with a 450kg hay bale on his legs and tried not to panic. He had no feeling from his chest down.
He had been helping feed deer. "The idea was to roll the bale off my truck and guide it to a flat area for the deer," he says.
But he slipped in the mud. "The bale ran over my head, forcing my neck down toward my knees with a noisy gre-e-e-ch of ripping tendons and broken bones and landed on my legs."
He had fractured and dislocated his neck. Doctors at Christchurch's Burwood spinal unit later told him he was half a millimetre away from being a tetraplegic.
Wife Mandy was six months into a nursing degree and knew enough to realise how helpless she was. "My first instinct was to move Michael from the mud but I knew it was too dangerous," she says. "He kept saying he had no feeling in his legs, and was floating in and out of consciousness. We kept his head still, wrapped hay around him and waited for the rescue helicopter to arrive."
Three weeks in hospital followed and he was one of the rare patients to walk out of Burwood. But despite two years of intense physiotherapy, life was never to be the same again.
Six years on from what he describes as a "wobble", Michael still runs his sheep and beef farm at Otamauri, on the Napier-Taihape road, but farm tasks requiring upper body strength are gruelling.
"I can't shear my rams and I need help with a lot of the yard work. Digging holes hurts all the way down my right side from my head to my feet." He sighs. "It's frustrating."
"It's been life-changing," Mandy says. "He did everything before - shearing, repairs, the whole sheboodle. He was so passionate about being out on the farm till all hours."
Michael says that passion is still there and he has restructured the farming system to allow for his limitations.
He is also lucky to have a relatively small farm that is easy to work. Its size also means he and Mandy concentrate on getting the most from it. "At 317 hectares you can't afford to be average," he says.
Attention to detail and high production standards were cited by the judges who awarded them the Hawke's Bay farmer of the year title in 2002, qualities that still drive their farming business.
They operate a simple system and make sure it runs like clockwork. Romney-based ewes are mated to south suffolk rams and all lambs are sold. Replacements are 500 two-tooths bought each year.
The key to their success is to determine the age of the lamb foetus at pregnancy scanning. Ewes are then mobbed according to when their lambs are due - earlies, middles or lates - and whether they will have singles or twins.
This means the mobs that will have the most lambs will be lambing at a time when the farm has the most grass to feed them.
Controlling the efficiency of this system starts at mating. The oldest ewes are mated first so those that do not conceive can be sent off the farm to leave more grass for the others. Younger ewes are mated in a second cycle.
Lambing begins on July 20 and the early singles are sent for slaughter in October. By early November 85 per cent of the lambs have gone at carcass weights of around 18.5kg.
To make sure the ewes get the most out of the pastures, they slowly work their way across a paddock, kept behind an electric wire till the most nourishing part of the grass has been eaten down. At lambing they are set-stocked on top- quality pastures - 1000kg of dry matter per hectare - and the lambs add 400 grams a day.
This season, with 128 per cent lambing, the couple have killed 90 per cent of lambs off their mothers at 18.6kg and been paid $99 a head.
As the lambs leave the farm they leave room for trade lambs to be bought and finished.
Michael and Mandy work together - in between her nursing shifts at Hastings Hospital - to get the best return they can, reducing stress that can cause weight loss. "The mob is brought up to the yard quietly," he says. "And the lambs don't go far, just half an hour down the road to Progressive's Hastings meat works. It's important to kill milk lambs close to home."
They also take advantage of a 36c-a- kologram premium offered by Progressive for "dresser" pelts that are not shorn, have no raddle wear and are not crutched too high.
The cattle are bulls, bought at 12-18 months and kept till they reach market weights.
Michael says the win is a highlight of his farming career. "It's the benchmark for farming excellence, showing to others what's achievable in Hawke's Bay. There's nothing like it in any other profession, where two years of financial records are examined by the judges and a field day is held for people to look over your farm and ask you about your business. There's no room for bulls..t."
He went on to sit on the committee organising the competition and was chairman for six years. "I'm genetically linked to it, it's in my DNA," he says.
Now he's farming with the next generation in mind. Son Patrick, 23, is a soft- ware developer and is not showing an interest in farming, but daughter Rebecca, 19, is at Massey University and wants to work with animals.
Michael describes the farm as a "springboard for life" that will be there for their children whether they decide to return or to use it as a financial backstop.
"I've got quite strong emotional ties to it, which is probably bad in a commercial sense. There's more to farming than that, though - money's only a way to keep score."
His close brush with a devastating injury has emphasised that view. "I'm grateful to simply be able to enjoy life without being in a wheelchair."
Since his injury he has rung other farmers badly hurt in similar circumstances to offer support.
The help he and Mandy received from family, friends and the local community was humbling. "The first day after the accident friends arrived from Gisborne to help and the locals developed a roster system to help us get through all the day- to-day tasks. The food parcels were endless and we will never be able to repay that debt of kindness from all those who helped us. It was something that perhaps only a rural community can provide and gave us the strength to continue."
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