Google Maps can get you a lot of places, but it struggled with Progress Valley in Southland, New Zealand.
Nestled in the Caitlins, the valley is three farms big and there’s not a screed of phone coverage for a full hour’s drive before you reach the farm.
Back in July, Eamon Meade, a neighbouring sheep farmer in Nobber, Co Meath, gave me the details of Mike Bashford, Progress Valley, and when I put the address into Google I laughed. Eight hours from Christchurch, I doubted I’d ever set foot so far south but a season in New Zealand can change a lot and after making a big move south to a dairy farm in West Otago, Progress Valley suddenly became but a morning’s trip away.
On my last day on the South Island, I made the trip towards Antarctica. I drove down through the rainforest, valleys and mountains of Caitlins National Park armed only with a GoPro and a pack of digestive biscuits shipped from the Emerald Isle for my new friend Michael.
After passing a sign for Niagara Falls, I was starting to wonder where I was headed but I soon saw the address code on a postbox and knew I’d reached the right farm.
A neighbour was in visiting Mike for a cuppa and I traded the packet of digestives for a hot cup of tea and a chat.
“We’ll go to the Niagara Falls café for lunch,” says Mike, so we hopped into his car. The BMW’s black leather was boiling through my shorts from the heat of the sun. He definitely deserves a BMW when he has to look after 2,500 ewes on his own. We stopped for a look at Niagara Falls. “Pity the tide's in,” he joked. “They’re often up to 2m in height”.
Over lunch, we chatted away about agriculture in both New Zealand and Ireland. Mike was born in New Zealand. His father Joe, a Co Meath man, took the boat over in the 1950s along with a Cork man called Johnny Carey. “A great Cork name,” said Mike.
Joe began working on a dairy farm. It was an hour down a gravel track from the nearest shop. It was a tough existence but in time he saved up and managed to buy the first part of today’s large sheep farm. Mike has since added another land block to the farm and a huge amount of fencing.
The farm is now divided into a number of large paddocks and his next project is to satellite-map the entire farm.
After lunch, I poured on the sun-cream and we hopped on the quad for a tour of the farm. I was glad of my helmet when we drove up the first paddock. I thought about the fib I heard about New Zealand sheep having shorter legs on their left-hand side to stand level on the sides of the mountainous ground.
The sheep were roaming freely around the couple of blocks of land the day I visited.
Mike set-stocks the different mobs of sheep at an average rate of 5/ha from lambing in September until weaning in January. After scanning, the mob of singles are stocked tighter, while the hoggets mob and multiples get more of an area allocation.
The sheep lamb themselves and are checked daily, with cast ewes (ewes on their backs) being the main problem.
From January onwards, Mike begins to rebuild grass covers on the farm by paddock grazing and tighter stocking. Ewes are flushed to a large team of Romney rams in April and some are put to Blue Leicester rams to breed crossbred ewe lambs as replacements for a customer of Mike’s annual sale.
Mike sells all his lambs in January. His annual pay day occurs every year in early January when approximately 3,000 weaned lambs are sold off the farm on his sale day. I missed out on seeing the big event by a couple of weeks.
Shearing is the next job for the year and occurs in February or March. Mike shears his sheep once a year and crutches them before shearing. Some 2,300 ewes were dagged in February, a week before shearing was to commence.
This year, the first 647 ewes managed to yield 3,000kg of wool, which Mike reckons will barely cover the cost of shearing. This is a big change to the times of old when the sheep’s wool was worth as much as its meat to the farmer.
Mike Bashford on his farm in Progress Valley.
In the afternoon, we drove across the runway, a flat-ish hilltop with a bunker at the end. On the farm, the fertiliser is spread by both truck and aeroplane contractors. The planes can cover the steepest areas and are cheaper than a helicopter.
Mike doesn’t use any nitrogen fertiliser on his grassland. Clover is abundant across the farm and provides all the nitrogen for grass growth. P and K are the most important soil nutrients to Mike and he regularly gets soil tests done with his local fertiliser supplier.
Mike was going to do a herbage test on the paddocks soon after I visited to identify the deficiencies and sufficiency in the grass, not just in the ground.
Mike has reseeded most of the farm. He sees great benefits in young grass and tries to focus on getting nitrogen from clover rather than chemical fertiliser. Weed control on the farm is done with a weed licker behind the quad and reseeding carried out with a grass barrow after spraying off and discing the topsoil.
It’s hard to believe the slopes that have been worked on the farm. Dual wheels are a must for stability.
The ewes are drenched a month before lambing and given a five-in-one clostridial vaccine. The fluke and worm drench used contains selenium and cobalt also. All the sheep yards and races are orientated so that the sheep face back towards the field when going up the race. Mike says this improves sheep flow greatly and speeds up every handling process.
Along with the sheep, Mike fattens around 40 beef calves every year. Mike traditionally kept a herd of suckler cows on the farm but has moved now to buying in weanlings and fattening them.
Mike showed me how the white face Simmentals have been bred to cope with the sun.
The Charolais calves with no pigment on their faces often get cancer of the eyes or photosensitivity from the sun, a horrible disease which in bad cases leads to all white skin shedding off the animal.
The Simmental calves all have red circles around their eyes. This bred-in pigment strengthens their ability to cope with the strong UV rays of the New Zealand sun.
After my stint in Otago and quick visit to Progress Valley, I said my goodbyes and headed for the airport. It was nearly home time, but being students we all had decided to do some travelling and backpacking to see the North Island as well as the east coast of Australia.
We all met up in Wellington and left our gum boots behind to begin to explore the far end of the world in our camper vans.
We all enjoyed our experience in New Zealand and with a new outlook on grass and dairying we ticked off another semester of the UCD dairy business degree.
Patrick Horgan is a third year UCD dairy business student who travelled to New Zealand from July to December as part of his work placement.
Student blog: calving season and thoughts towards breeding
Student blog: we need a bigger rain gauge in New Zealand