In the old days things were a tad different on the farm

I vaguely remember as a small child a story going around the school playground that someone – maybe one of the boys from further up the Otewa Valley, or possibly from Tahaia way – had caught a hawk in a rabbit trap, tied a half-plug of gelignite to its back, lit the fuse and let the bird go.

The bird apparently had some difficulty flying properly and after the initial terrified flutter to get away, it lumbered over to perch on the nearby woolshed roof.

Nothing was found of the bird in the ensuing explosion, while a fair section of roof and back wall of the shed was reduced to splinters and twisted sheets of iron.

It may or may not be true, but I still fondly believe it because they were heroic times back then.

True or not, things were a tad different in those far-off days. Sticks of gelignite, little wood-shaving-lined tins of silver detonators, and coils of yellow-and-black cordite fuse were usually somewhere in cupboards or on high shelves in a cool back corner of the shed, with the volatile little detonators always well away from the gelignite.

There was also a tin of pebbly, silver-grey blasting powder, which had to be rammed firmly into the auger hole drilled into stumps or logs to split them open.

Mind you, I can remember my wizened grandfather, then about the same age that I am now, giving my brother and me the old "Now, when I was your age" line occasionally, and just as kids down through the ages have done, we would metaphorically strum our ukuleles.

Yet times and perceptions do change as the decades roll past. Ask anyone under the age of 40 what a "party line" is, and they would likely explain that it is a line of fine white powder laid out on a sheet of glass with an adjacent razor blade and a short straw you shove up your nose. Not my idea of fun.

Those 60 and over can probably still remember their party-line number. Ours was 409-U and the neighbours', half a mile away, was 118-A.

There were party-line snoopers too, and you would know they were there because you would hear the click as they sneakily picked up the receiver to listen in, and there was an extra hollowness on the line as you spoke to friend or neighbour, so you and the other person purposely gossiped rude things about who you thought the eavesdropper might be.

Things on the farm changed too – tools, machinery, equipment, methods of coping with day-to-day problems.

The days of digging scotch thistles were endless and hot and stifling, but it had to be done. Paddocks looked absolutely rubbish when they were liberally sprinkled with the dark-green blotches of big, dense rosette scotchies, or their bigger-grown brawny, branchy older brothers.

And it wasn't simply a matter of chipping them off at ground level either. Dad insisted that the root system be well pried out of the ground, ensuring the rotten things didn't burst out again and smother more precious, milk-producing grass.

The spade needed sharpening constantly and when a paddock had been "dug", the spiky thistles had to be forked on to the farm trailer and carted off to the farm dump.

Ragwort was the other horror plant our dad hated. It tainted milk if a cow accidentally ate it.

It flowered big and ugly yellow and spread 78 million seeds, and it seriously besmirched and disfigured a paddock of otherwise serene and beautiful green grass. Those plants could be chipped off at ground level, but the stumps were then liberally sprinkled with a home-brew of lime and sodium chloride (or was it chlorate?), which had earlier been mixed using a square-mouth shovel on the woolshed floor.

The sodium chloride had first been rolled out flat under a glass bottle, to get rid of the lumps, but gingerly done because it could apparently explode if mishandled.

I have no idea whether that's true or not, but it was true enough in those days to always handle the stuff with care.

Once mixed with the lime, it was shovelled into old calf-feeding buckets, a bucket per person, and it was sharp spades, buckets, pitch-forks and dogs all aboard the trailer and out for a day ragworting. My nose still involuntarily wrinkles at the stink of crushed ragwort.

But we had a cleaner farm than many and were inordinately proud of it as well.

These days, of course, everyone sits on a comfortable tractor towing a 1000-litre trailer-drum of weed spray and trundles up and down the paddocks, using a GPS gadget to make sure nothing is missed – just as effective, certainly faster, and probably 20 times the cost.

Then, of course, there was the bloat season – a dreaded time of year back in the 1950s and 60s, before there were proper preventive drenches and other medical material to stop the killer problem.

It could strike any time from mid-September, depending on how warm the weather was, but October and early November were always worrying weeks of watching the milking herd for most of the day, walking quietly among the animals as they stood in the deep, lush grass.

You could see and hear their great rough tongues swinging wide like ragged scythes, tearing mouthfuls of the damp, rich, green clover and rye.

The clover was the killer in that early spring growth. Something in it reacted to the cow's digestive juices, and rapidly created a gas in their gut that would, within minutes, suddenly have the animal blown and distended horribly. Invariably the animals blew more on the left side, and it could happen to a dozen or 30 beasts within minutes.

So during morning milking, the cows were held in the shed paddock until milking and shed cleanup were completed, then one of us and the two dogs would take the herd away to the day's feed paddock and stay with them, patrol slowly up and down, talking softly to the animals, patting the odd one, and watching anxiously for any tell-tale signs.

The disappearance of the little triangular hollow in front of the left hip-bone was usually the first indicator. Then the skin around the whole body would become progressively tighter and rounder.

It was best to stop the greedy grazing for a short time and get the animals on the move, to give them time to digest what they had already scoffed.

The movement, pushing them up and down the paddock with the dogs, also helped get rid of some of the gas. There would be burps and farts and skitters as the animals "let go".

There were no drenches or other remedies then, and if an animal was seriously bloated, and began to grunt and kick feebly at its lower stomach, or if it stuffed its head in a barberry hedge, we had only seconds to act, and the action was not for the faint-hearted.

Every dairy farmer carried a knife at that time of year, a tool with a blade about 10cm to 12cm, and always sharp-pointed.

When a cow showed those danger symptoms, the only remedy was to ram the blade full-depth into the hide, just forward of the left hip-bone, then slash it down 4cm to 6cm, to open a vent.

The result was an instant hissing, stinking, hurtling fountain of dark-green, sloppy semi-digested grass and an invisible cloud of vile-smelling gut-gas. The action usually saved the animal's life, but they were crook for the rest of the season and produced only poorly.

But if herds weren't watched closely, it was a dreadful risk.

Every year, there were tragedies. One farmer, I remember, lost about 40 animals out of a herd of 100 or so cows, in one night. On several occasions, two or three animals were lost a day. Those little bloat knives are long since a tool of the past, but I bet some older farmers still carry a blade while out on the land.