August 29, 2014

Agricultural history in New Zealand. Herd testers. Alex Henderson

By Dr Clive Dalton

Alex Henderson
Alex Henderson was born on the family farm, called ‘Barelees’ near Forde in Northumberland, 30 miles from the Scottish Border where he worked as a shepherd for four years after he left school. To earn some money, as farmers’ sons only got their keep but never proper wages, he went to work for six months on the dairy farm run by the Edinburgh University Veterinary School, milking their herd of 40 Ayrshire cows. 
He didn’t like the dormitory arrangements living with the young students, so he got a job at Market Weighton in the East Riding of Yorkshire, on a farm milking a herd of Jersey cows. 

Alex was 24 by this time, and had a desire to travel.  Canada was a possibility, but a friend who had moved there advised him to go elsewhere, as the winters were cold resulting in long periods without work.

Herd testers needed in NZ 
While in Yorkshire he saw an advertisement in the British Farmers Weekly for herd testers in New Zealand.  He put in an application which was successful, subject to the required health tests which he had in Leeds.  All went well, and when he wrote home to tell the family that he was leaving for New Zealand, he had the one and only letter from his father (which he still has) asking if he realised how far away he was going!

The Captain Cook
Farewell from Glasgow
So on  July 13 1954, Alex set sail from Glasgow for New Zealand on the ‘Captain Cook’ with 1000 immigrants aged 17-30, segregated on board, with females forward and males aft.  But Alex remembers that this didn’t stop them having a good trip!

There were 42 other single men going to New Zealand as herd testers, all of them from farming backgrounds.  They all had a memorable voyage, sailing from the Atlantic into the Pacific via the Panama Canal, and a memorable stop at Pitcairn, where the ship stood off while the visiting passengers were landed in longboats.

Wellington arrival
They arrived in Wellington at 8am on 17 August 1954, with only those going to local jobs being allowed off the ship. Those going North had to remain on board till 4pm when it was time to board the ‘overnight limited stopping train’ to head north leaving at 6pm.  Alex said that the authorities must have taken this precaution incase any new arrivals did a runner. Alex remembers that the train was packed, and it was a fight at stops like Taumarunui where passengers were got off to get a pie and cup of tea before the train moved on.

The biggest group of future herd testers got off at Frankton Junction to work for the Auckland Herd Improvement Association, but Alex and his six herd testing mates stayed on the train for Auckland, arriving there at 6pm on Friday 18th August.

They were allowed a day to recover, spending a night crammed into small hotel, and finally arrived by bus at Whangarei to be met by Mr Taylor who had arranged their accommodation in a local boarding house.

Start work in Northland
Because the herd-testing season had already started in Northland a few weeks before the new staff arrived, there were no jobs available, so Alex and the others got work on local dairy farms. Alex worked on a farm at Kaiwaka where part of the condition of employment was that he had the morning off when the herd tester arrived, to get some practice using a pipette to learn how to suck up (by mouth!) Sulphuric acid and amyl alcohol for the Gerber butterfat test, and see what was involved in the process.

Alex stayed on that farm until the 1st of November, when a herd testing vacancy became available at Kawakawa.  He was met there by a supervisor and taken to a farm for the first night to start testing where the 30 cows all had names. He tested the herd evening and morning, and had his work checked by the supervisor who had also stayed on the farm. He decided Alex was competent so was to be on his own.

Horse and cart 
Horse and cart ready for the day's action
Alex collected his horse, cart with rubber wheels, and all the gear needed, before he went on his way to the next farm. The gear included buckets, lids, a hand-cranked centrifuge, Sulphuric acid and amyl alcohol in large containers, butyrometer tubes for fat testing, scales, bottles for samples, crates and much more. A cover was provided for all this gear in the cart, but not for the driver Alex said.

After the first test on his own, Alex was told not to tip the next morning’s milk as the supervisor returned to check the work. Everything was found to be in order, so he was given a map and list of 26 farms for the month.  He never saw a supervisor for the next 2 years, and only contacted him by phone if necessary. As it was November, Alex worked through until December 23rd, and then had time off until January 3rd. From then on, work was continuous until the end of March as February was a short month.

Walk-through milking shed
Walk-through sheds
Milking was done in double-up walk-through sheds, and on his first farm there were 120 Jersey cows to be milked and recorded.  This was a much bigger farming operation than Alex had worked on in England, and he said that he was amazed at the large amount of milk produced which had to be weighed, sampled and tested for butter fat night and morning with the two tests added together.

The milk was separated on the farm, where the cream went to the factory and the skim milk was fed to pigs, which were kept on all dairy farms and added greatly to their income.

Alex says he worked one week each month on a back block at Mototau with no telephone, and sometimes no power, so the herd was milked by hand. These were mostly Maori farms and again, and Alex said they couldn’t do enough for you – welcoming the tester into their home and Alex was treated as one of the family. He worked in the Kawakawa group for 2 years which stretched from Towai in the south to Kaikohe in the north, Kawakawa being the centre.

 Challenges of roads and weather

Transport challenges facing herd testers
 Alex said it was mostly metal roads and has travelled them since by car wondering how he did it, but others were similarly employed. There were floods in the spring and droughts in the summer. Alex’s largest herd was 120 and the smallest 20 cows – all of them making a living and raising a family. It was the people he met who made the job.

Alex left herd testing to work on a dairy farm at Maromaku, (near Towai) for two years – again, the family made the job so satisfying, and treated me as their immigrant son. He remained in contact with them during all his years in NZ, spending every Christmas with them, and now continues in contact with their extended family.

Alex remembers the home-made pikelets for afternoon teas, and he knew that once he started on his round of 26 farms, he’d have 25 roast dinners ahead of him for the month.  Some farmers took the opportunity when the herd tester arrived for them all to go to the movies in the local town.  One night he remembers telling the farmer’s wife who was helping with the milking that he was going to the movies at 7.30 with a neighbouring farmer. So she rushed home to cook an early tea, and even ran a hot bath for him!

There was no TV in those days, so Alex played cards every night, with 500 being the most popular game.  The farmers and their families always enjoyed a bit of new company so there were plenty of late nights.  Herd testers were a key part of the farming community and their social life included most events including Christmas parties. Lifelong friendships were made.

Alex did two seasons at Kawakawa and then worked on farms before going back on the Rangitoto to England in 1958 for one year, returning to New Zealand on the Rangitani in May 1959 where he got a job as a builder’s labourer at Pukekohe for six weeks. 

Alex then started herd testing again on the 1 August in the Pukekohe Group where he did 1959/60 in Pukekohe, 1960/61 in Pokeno/Mangatauwhiri, 1961/62 in Orini, 1962/63 in Te Kawa, 1963/64 in Piopio, and 1964/65 in Waihi.   Alex said that he certainly saw a real variety of sheds and farmers – all of whom provided memorable hospitality.

Herringbone sheds
When Alex left for the UK in 1965 there were no herringbone sheds, but by the time he returned in 1966 there had been massive changes away from walk-through to herringbone sheds. Herringbone milking sheds had been developed at Gordonton, and had become very popular and made the job of milking and herd testing much easier for all involved. They spread rapidly through the country and after 1979, Alex noted big changes where herds were increasing in size; farmers could no longer make a good living from 20-120 cows on a 100-acre farm. 
After Alex returned to New Zealand in 1966, he returned to the Mark family in Ngaruawahia (where he’d had a base since 1959) and worked for the Hurricane Wire Company in Te Rapa, Hamilton. During this time he met Ken Stone of the Auckland Herd Improvement Association in Hamilton at the Te Rapa racecourse, who invited him to return to herd testing. Alex was interested in training for the newly expanding Artificial Breeding (AB) side of dairy farming, but Selwyn Sheaf the AHIA manager was keen to have Alex back herd testing. 

Photo shows modern (2013) herringbone miking shed, with 30 sets of cups.  After about 50 sets, farmers today would then opt for a rotary - with 80 bail rotaries now common on large 1000 cow herds 

 Alex returned to the LIC in 1966 and worked as a supervisor for 14 years, with trips home in 1969, 1972, 1978 and 1984. His last 10 years of employment were spent as Weigh Station Manager at Morrinsville.  This involved training new herd testers on the farm, keeping a check on their results based on the composite sample from each farm, and dealing with any issues that may arise.

Herd testers conference and ball 

Testers and AHIA staff all dressed up for the Conference
Each year, the Auckland Herd Improvement Association held its annual herd testers’ ball, followed the next day by the herd testers conference, held at their London Street office organised by Selwyn Sheaf. At the end of the conference, the new testing areas were handed out –which Alex says always created a lot of interest to see who got what.  Some testers wanted to swap clients as they had developed such friendships with them, but that was not allowed.

Women in dairy farming
Alex said that looking back, 1954-58 when he travelled Northland with a horse and cart herd testing were some of the best years of his life, due to the warm hospitality and the friendship he experienced on New Zealand farms.  He said that the calibre of the women in dairying was fantastic, and the hard work they contributed to the dairy industry, as well as running a busy house and rearing a family, was never fully appreciated.  They would even wash and iron the herd tester’s clothes!

Alex retired in 1990 and said that New Zealand was a country of great opportunity if you worked hard.  Alex died on 14 July, 2017 aged 88.

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