nelson mail article

Voice of experience

The Nelson  Mail | Tuesday, 15 May 2007

ANNE HARDIE/Nelson Mail

A LITTLE HORSE: Jan and Lindsay Yeo take time out with their miniature horse, Tonto, and husky, Anya.

Lifestyle blocks are a big chunk of the rural scene, yet there’s often a lot of naivety about farming animals. Anne Hardie talks with a couple that run a smooth operation and asks a local vet for a few tips for those trying their hand at farming.

Living in the middle of a city never sat comfortably with Lindsay and Jan Yeo.

Country roots beckoned them back, first to a 12ha lifestyle block near Wellington then to their 4ha patch of countryside on the Waimea Plains when they retired. Well, supposedly retired. Lindsay’s no longer a radio announcer, but the couple are always thinking up new projects and Jan has a thriving organic nappy business.

When they left the city, privacy as well as animals was a big drawcard to the country life. Horses – including one from the Kaimanawa wild herd, donkeys, a miniature horse, kunekune pigs, chooks, wiltshire sheep, calves and dogs have all been part of the menagerie that they tend to in an organic fashion.

The Yeos are the sort of lifestylers that win approval from the rural community with their paddocks of contented stock – a better image than the gaunt animals that are sometimes crowded on to grass-short small holdings.

And one of the reasons their lifestyle block works is that they have continued to asked questions from those in the know, right back to those early days when they were new to the game.

“It was a learning experience, but there was one thing I wasn’t short of, and that was asking questions,” Lindsay says.

“The local farmers (near their Wellington block) would see us and our four big dogs that weren’t any use in the country, and shake their heads – `loopy townies’.”

“When the sheep first arrived,” remembers Jan, “we had a regular farmer come to look at them and he opened their mouth and said, “You’ve been had, they’ve only got one set of teeth!”

Without knowing that sheep only had teeth on their bottom jaw, Lindsay and Jan took the bait, hook, line and sinker, much to the farmer’s merriment.

With tales of shearing and crutching hassles ringing in their ears, the couple sought wiltshire sheep. This ancient breed from the Chalk Downs region of England, reached large numbers in the 17th and 18th century but gave way to other breeds.

Wiltshires naturally shed their fleece, wiping shearing, crutching and even flyblow off the list of things to do. Without wool to collect dags, flies aren’t attracted to the sheep and so there’s no need to dock the tails either.

The added benefit is that the sought-after wiltshires fetch about $300 a lamb, though with numbers increasing again the Yeos concede they are losing the niche market that existed for the breed.

“We wanted something that was organic and less work because we knew what it’s like for farmers,” Jan says.

A farmer initially drenched and inoculated their lambs after talking the Yeos into it, but Lindsay and Jan knew the wiltshires were hardy and wanted a different approach.

“We just preferred natural methods and if there was an alternative we’d use it,” says Lindsay. “We didn’t automatically think of chemicals.”

The animals themselves have taught them much of what they’ve learnt, says Jan, such as the need for shelter.

“It really bothers us when you see deer with no trees,” she says.

“Newborn lambs, can tolerate frost and snow, but it’s the wind they can’t handle,” Lindsay says.

“We read a lot,” says Jan. “It would put you off having sheep altogether if you read about all the problems they can get. We’ve also learnt a lot from the vets.” Managing feed is critical. The Yeos have in the past overstretched their feed supply with too many animals. Now they tend to understock, apply organic fertiliser with a garden hose from a tank on a trailer and cut about 30 big bales of hay in early summer that can be fed out through winter if necessary.

“If you understock, you can manage your food resource over winter by feeding them the surplus you’ve cut,” Lindsay says.

This is very much a lifestyle and there’s no profit at the end of the year, though the animals do pay their way and cover the rates. It gives Lindsay and Jan the privacy they crave though, and the animals give them a lot of pleasure.

“My piece of advice for newbies is to ask questions from people who have been there forever,” says Lindsay. “They’ve a fascinating source of knowledge and it’s interesting to see the history of the place.”

It’s also the advice Richmond veterinarian Roger Bay prescribes. He’s seen the whole gambit on lifestyle blocks from the best to the worst.

Some of the biggest mistakes are from naivety and Roger recommends people seek advice before setting down the path of farming animals.

Before they buy a pen of rejects that give endless problems and may not even be the right type of animals for the property or the place.

“People should budget in some time with someone to work out a plan for animal health and put together a calendar of events that they need to do with the animals. Preferably, those new to stock should get a vet or someone competent in the industry to visit their property and look at yarding and tuberculosis testing requirements, pasture, stocking rates, mineral deficiencies, general handling techniques and trimming feet.

“Some people ask us to diary dates through the year where we come out and trim feet, vaccinate, drench for parasites or whatever.”

One of the crucial factors in Nelson is managing feed. Droughts stop grass growth and small blocks suddenly find themselves with too many mouths to feed, he says. That’s where local knowledge can help before trouble starts. Perhaps his biggest bugbear with lifestyle blocks though, is the lack of handling facilities for adequately holding stock for drenching, vaccination, trimming feet and dealing with any problems that arise. Or those times a vet is required.

“They’ll say, `Oh Daisy is quiet – she’ll just stand in the paddock’. But Daisy’s never seen the vet before who smells of lots of different animals and Daisy’s never had a thermometer put up her rear end before.”

One of his pet hates is when someone has bought a few heifers at a sale only to find they’re in calf too young and require assistance – often a caesarean. Or worse, they have to be destroyed. Better, he says, to source stock from a good commercial herd or flock with a known background.

Sometimes naivety can be dangerous, points out Roger. Such as choosing a “fancy” breed without knowing the temperament or suitability for a lifestyle block.

Like the Yeos, Roger says it’s best to ask questions from those in the know and avoid problems rather than tackling them after something has gone wrong.