August 26, 2014

Agricultural history in New Zealand. Herd testers. Joan Bentley

By Dr Clive Dalton

Joan Bentley was born in Ireland and worked for the President of the Irish Jersey Breeders Association, who got a lot of information from New Zealand about Jersey cattle. 

This encouraged Joan’s interest in Jerseys, and New Zealand.

2012  New Zealand Jersey herd of 400 cows, five times the average herd size in the 1960s

In 1965 she saw an advert in the Irish Farmer’s Weekly for herd testers in New Zealand, so got all the necessary forms and applied. One of the big attractions of the job was that men and women were paid the same pay rate, which was not the norm in Ireland.

She had an interview in Belfast and after the necessary health checks, she was accepted as a ‘ten pound pom’ and on her way to New Zealand aged 24 from Tilbury docks in London on the NZ Shipping Company ‘Rangitoto’, leaving on 26 May 1965.

SS Rangitoto (photo Internet)
 Joan said the ship had a couple of breakdowns due to her age, needing engineers to fly out to Panama.  So it was not a rushed trip and she remembers a wonderful five weeks at sea with 36 other future herd testers and many other young folk on board.  They had memorable stops at the Azores, Panama through the canal and Tahiti, where she vividly remembers the lush vegetation after many days at sea. She said the voyage was a time of rest and relaxation - and putting on weight, arriving Wellington on 26 June 1965.

The Rarimu railway spiral from the air

After arrival, the group of herd tester recruits boarded the ‘limited overnight express’ train bound for Frankton Junction.   

She remember stopping on the top of the Rarimu spiral in the middle of the night, opening the windows, seeing the stars and feeling the cold King Country winter air flowing in.

She remembers it being equally cold on arrival at Frankton Junction at 6am.  

AHIA office briefing
Scotsman Bill Calder met the group at Frankton where accommodation had been arranged at the Riverlea Hotel at the south end of Victoria Street in Hamilton.  They then spent two days at the Head Office of the Auckland Herd Improvement Association (AHIA) in London Street, with the manager Selwyn Sheaf and Ken Stone who was responsible for training.  Joan found them very nice people and very welcoming.

The former head office of the Auckland Herd Improvement Association in London Street, Hamilton.  This 2014 photo shows a different business to keeping pedigree and production records from dairy cows in the 1960s.
 Joan remembers being lectured on the important issue of herd testing etiquette, of never  carrying information on herd tests results, or gossip, from one farm to another, as many folk were related and this could cause all sorts of problems. They had to be friendly but professional at all times.

To Karaka
To start her herd-testing round, Joan was sent to Karaka where she had three weeks training with another herd tester, Charlie Leimweber – who Joan remembers was a constant student of ‘Best Bets’ horse racing guide.  New Zealand was a great experience for her being intrigued to see lemons growing on trees, and to confront her first dead possum!

Joan found the people on farms were all very friendly, and they were always interested in Ireland and what was going on in other places.  So there was no lack of conversation in the evenings, as Television was just coming in at the time, with radio being the main form of communication, especially in the cowshed.

Move to Waitoa
After Karaka, Joan was sent to Waitoa near Te Aroha to a round of monthly testing on 25 farms, where herds were increasing in size up to 120 cows by then, and everyone worked hard. 

Simca (photo Internet)

Herd testing was noisy heavy work with full pails of milk having to be lifted on to spring balances to record weight. 
 Horses and carts for herd testers had slipped into history by this time, and Joan got an interest-free load to buy an old Simca car and trailer to transport all her testing gear from farm to farm. 
Testers who had horses were not sorry to see them go, especially as those in the Waikato were all ex pacers ensuring that the cart and its contents had a steady swaying gait.
 The gear included the centrifuge for spinning the butyrometer tubes, containers for Sulphuric acid and amyl alcohol, 20 sets of milk meters and sample bottles. All these bottles needed washing, and the in hot water needed could cause a problem for the farmer as it took away water he needed.

Move to Te Kowhai
After two months at Waitoa, Joan was sent to Te Kowhai, which was the first area to trial the Trutest milk meter, which saved all the hard work of physically weighing milk.  Bill Calder designed all the equipment needed for these major changes to improve herd testing.

Herringbone sheds were starting to appear in great numbers, but Joan said that sheds converted from the standard walk-throughs to herringbones, had major problems with bottlenecks when cows were released.  So this encouraged farmers to come up with solutions from which all farmers benefited.

Testing tricks
Some farmers saw the monthly visit of the herd tester as a nuisance, as it upset their regular routines.  But the majority realised the importance of testing, and some were even up to tricks to get a good test to boost their herd, like putting weights on cup claws to draw out the last drops of milk, which were always higher in fat content, and stripping the cow (sometimes twice) after the cups had come off.  Putting the cows in a good paddock or feeding meal before the test was another common trick, especially in pedigree herds selling bulls.

Network of friends
A photo of the four women herd testers (at right) and two men with their horse transport.  They all met once a year at the Herd Testers conference and Ball. They  loved their horses most of the time - but were not sorry to see them go for a faster mode of transport.
 Joan said she made a lasting network of friends through herd testing, both male and female.  In the early days she remembers some wives were suspicious of women herd testers in the milking shed alone with their husbands, while they were in the house preparing meals.  Joan remembers informing  one suspicious wife that her husband’s looks ensured he was totally safe from the attentions of any  women herd testers! 

Joan looks back on her herd testing days with fond memories and after herd testing for four years at Te Kowhai, Joan married, and she and her husband went farming on their own account in the area.   She now breeds shorthorn cows on her small block in Te Kowhai.

After her husband's death, she worked as a technician in the Horticulture Department at the Waikato Polytech, after which she has had a long and happy retirement on a small block in Te Kowhai with partner Brian Saunders. She has Shorthorn cattle and prize-winning poultry - and dogs!
Photo below shows her with doggy friend who she entertains on a Monday each week. 

Joan with friend's Great Dane and her own two Australian terriers May 2018

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