August 15, 2014

New Zealand agricultural history. Herd testing. Jim Crawford

By Dr Clive Dalton

Family farm too small 

Former herd testers - Jim Crawford (right) and Alex Henderson
 Jim Crawford came from a farming family in Ireland, but there was little future for farmer’s sons who got their keep, their clothes and no pay.  Jim’s brother was on the farm but there was no room for both of them, so Jim who was living in Bangor, County Down was training to be a supermarket manager.

Looking for a new future, Jim and his brother got interested in New Zealand about 1958, as Jim’s father had lived in New Zealand from 1922 to 1926 during the time of the depression- and as a result had to return home.

First class cabins only
After finding out about passages to New Zealand and work prospects, they found out from the New Zealand Shipping Company, that there was only two bookings left if they wanted to sail at this time, and they were single first class cabins at a cost of £190 each!  Before leaving to emigrate, they had to go through all the necessary health checks, but Jim’s brother was turned down by the New Zealand Immigration Department.  Undaunted, they still decided to come and pay their own fare. 

SS Rangitata
So they left from London’s Tilbury Docks on the NZ Shipping Company ‘Rangitata’ for the five-week voyage to New Zealand via the Canary Islands, Curacao, the Panama Canal and Pitcairn Island.

SS Rangitata passing through the Panama Canal (photo John Wallace)
Single rooms in first class Jim says was luxury, but they spent most of their time in tourist class where there was much more fun, as tourist class passengers couldn’t visit them on first class.  It was a five-week voyage arriving in Wellington on 4 August 1960, to a cool morning at 6am.   There was nobody to meet them so after a day or so they boarded the  ‘limited overnighter’ train arriving at Frankton Junction at 6am to be met by a retired Irish farmer from Morrinsville., who had been a friend of their father’s.

Rangitata irst class dining room (photo John Wallace)
 After a week or so they went to stay with their uncle at Okaihau where they worked on his farm helping with milking and other chores.  Things didn’t go too well after Jim was reprimanded by the Uncle for wasting water when washing the yard. Jim suggested the Uncle and not the yard would get the next wash!

Morrinsville farm job
Then Jim, leaving his brother up North, got a phone call about a job to milk 180 cows in two sheds on a 700-acre farm on Piako road near Morrinsville. Part of the farm was still being developed and was in Titree.  Jim really didn’t have all that much experience of farming but took the job, it was a bit of a shock to get up at 4am and milk for two and a half hours at either end of the day.

He was paid £8 per week with board provided, and worked there for over year before getting a job offer up north near his brother in a butchery for £10 a week, where he stayed with his brother until his brother got married and Jim looked for other work.

Herd testers wanted

Herd testing jobs were being advertised at the end of 1963 and Jim applied and got one to test herds in the area.  He was trained by Allan Bird at one evening milking, followed by the next morning milking, and that was it, so Allan must have been happy with his abilities.  Jim was on his own.

His round had 24 farms with herds of 24-180 cows in the Waipapa area, most of them identified by their names. They were mainly Jerseys but then Friesians started to be introduced.  He was provided with a Ferguson tractor and trailer to carry all his testing equipment from one farm to the other : they were certainly not designed for speed.

Speeding Fergie
Harry Ferguson's famous tractor
On one occasion Jim got a great scare when he was rushing from a farm at Pakaraka and had to be at his next farm at Awanui (some distance away) by 1pm – so he was running late.  Going down a hill outside Okaihau he put the Fergie out of gear to gain speed passing cars and buses on his way. 

It was not a good decision, as all his gear (including 5 gallon containers of sulphuric acid and 5 gallons of amyl alcohol), and delicate glassware were rattling around in the trailer, and at that speed, the Fergie’s gearbox was not designed to get back into gear. Jim didn’t repeat the exercise!  He said that despite his worst fears, not a thing was broken.

Staying the night with each farmer was always a pleasant social occasion. Jim enjoyed staying on farms as the hospitality was so good with no TV and only the radio – so instead people talked to each other!   Cards were also a popular game at the time.

The pressure was always on after the morning milking, to complete all the work of testing each cow’s sample, writing up the records and leaving a copy for the farmer. Then each day a composite sample had to be taken and sent to the lab to make sure that his testing was accurate, as farmers were paid on the butterfat content.  The Northland Herd Improvement had its HQ in Whangarei for all the herd testing north of the Auckland Harbour bridge .

Physically demanding job
The work of herd testing was physically demanding as before milk meters came along, milk from each cow was weighed in stainless steel buckets with the milk from each cow. It then had to be lifted on to a Salter spring balance for weighing before being tipped into the separator to collect the cream for the factory.  After each milking and carrying out the Gerber fat test, all the glassware had to be washed and dried in preparation for the next milking.

Graham Platt was Jim’s boss along with Bill Harry. There were few female herd testers at the time and everyone was so busy that they rarely met. They only heard from the farmer who had been there to test the previous month. It was part of their training not to make any comment on any herds’ records to other farmers.  So everyone looked forward to their Annual Conference and Herd Testers’ ball.  Jim also served as a delegate for the Herd Testers’ Union a year

Up to all the tricks
There were some smart farmers around, and herd testers had to be wide-awake to all their tricks, as their aim was to boost the fat produced by each cow to improve their sale prospects, especially if they were pedigree breeders whose main market was selling bulls. This was before AB was in common use.

Reading a Gerber tube to assess fat content of milk sample

Jim had a regular testing routine in the Moromaku Valley of starting at the top and moving from farm to farm finishing at the bottom.  He got the message (probably from farming neighbours) that one farmer at the bottom always saved up good pasture a day or so before the test to boost the fat levels, so Jim phoned him the night before and told him (due to unforeseen circumstances!) that he would be there to test the next afternoon and the following morning. The farmer phoned back to say this would not be convenient, and he had contacted Jim’s boss in Whangarei about it.  Jim’s boss agreed with Jim and the test went on – with lower fat levels this time!

Some farmers fed meal before herd testing and some used to strip the cow after the machine was removed, and then even wait a while and strip her again.  This meant that you could be still in the milking shed at 9pm.

Breeds of dairy cattle

The Jersey breed - cow typical of 1950-1960 model
Jerseys were the main breed but were phased out the last of the dairy Shorthorn herds, but the big change came with the introduction of Friesians, and veterinarian John Sterling was the first to do this on his Ohaeawai farm.  John also used to call for help when any tom cat needed to be deprived of its manhood, in those days held down a gumboot!

Herd testing was not a full year’s job and if it was dry summer in Northland, which was common, testers could be unemployed from February through to July, so they had to find other work, generally on farms during haymaking.

Share milking
As well as herd-testing in Northland, Jim went  to 20% lower-order share-milking near Waipapa with 50-60 cows, but had to break the contract due to ill-health. After working for some time at Matakohe Store, he returned to herd-testing.

In 1967 after herd testing for 5 years in Northland, Jim headed back to Northern Ireland for a working holiday and to spend time with ageing parents. While there he worked at the Pig Progeny Testing Station at Greenmount Agricultural College in Antrim, gaining valuable knowledge of pig husbandry. 

NZ Dairy Company and Fonterra
Returning to New Zealand in 1969 (now married to Margaret), Jim hoped to be able to eventually purchase a piggery and managed several pig farms with that goal in mind – unfortunately a serious bout of leptospirosis make that impossible, and 37 years employment with NZDC (now Fonterra)  on the laboratory side of things followed.

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