top of page

My Adventure Down Under

University faculty are entitled to take sabbaticals. A sabbatical is when you take a break from your ordinary job duties and focus on something new. Having worked for the University of Maryland for more than 28 years, I decided to take a sabbatical from December 1, 2016, to May 31, 2017. The focus of my sabbatical is (was) using technology to raise sheep and goats. I began my sabbatical by going to Australia and New Zealand for three weeks. Where better to learn about precision sheep farming than the two countries that do the best job raising sheep?

I didn't know anyone in Australia and New Zealand, so I had to plan my trip from scratch. I scoured the internet. I sent emails to universities and farms. There was so much I wanted to see and do, but I had to narrow it down. I decided to visit one region in Australia (New England area) and both islands of New Zealand. This would require a lot of driving. I was aprehensive, but went ahead with it.


Not fifteen minutes from the airport in Sidney, I clipped the passenger side mirror. I had to go back to the airport and get another rental car. I got pulled over in New Zealand for going too slow (there are no four lanes) and got two speeding tickets in Australia (for going 7 miles over the speed limit). Caught on camera! The tickets were mailed to me. I received them after I got home. I mostly got the hang of driving on the wrong side of the road, sitting on the wrong side of the car, but I could never quite stop myself from signaling with the windshield wipers. Oh well, I couldn't have seen or did what I did if I hadn't got behind the wheel. I had two travel companions. I got them home safely.



We arrived in Sidney, after two days of air travel. We flew from Washington to Los Angeles, before boarding a direct flight to Sidney. Unbeknownst to me, the hotel I booked was in the heart of Sidney's Chinatown, near a Technical University. So, at first, it didn't really seem as if we were in Australia.  We spent a day doing the tourist thing, visiting the usual sites:  waterfront, opera house, Harbor Bridge, and Bondi Beach. On the morning we left, we visited the office of Australian Wool Innovation. The office had a nice view of the city, and we learned all they do on behalf of the wool industry.


Our first destination was Kentucky, New South Wales, Australia.  It was about an 8 hour drive from Sidney. Driving was easy, once we left the city. We drove across the Sidney Harbor Bridge: that was cool!  In Kentucky, we were hosted by a farmer named Michael Taylor. Michael's farm (Taylor's Run) ran a few thousand commercial Merino ewes, Superfine. We stayed for several day's in one of Michael's shearer's huts. In fact, the name of his farm accomodations is "The Huts."  That's how we ended up there. I found the accomodations on the internet and after multiple e-mail exchanges, it was decided that Michael would serve as our tour guide as well.


We stayed in a self-contained unit with three beds, a kitchen, and a bath. The other shearers' quarters housed backpackers, who exchanged work for room and board. That seems to be commonplace in Australia and New Zealand. We met two nice backpackers from France, young. Of course, there was no Wi-Fi at The Huts. To get cell phone reception, we had to climb to the top of a hill. There was a make-shift table at the top of the hill. Michael called it the pub or office. We climbed every morning to check emails and make calls, if necessary. The hill offered a good view of Michael's farm. Michael was an environmentalist. He had planted trees.

Kentucky was a very small place. It had a general store and not much else. A bit farther way was a bigger town called Uralla. It had a pub and a wool shop. We spent money at both. At the pub, I had New England Lamb Cutlets. They were delicious.  Armidale was a bit farther north. A fairly big town. A university town. We spend one day making visits at the University of New England. We met with several veterinarians and gained some insight into the parasite problem in the Northern Tablelands. The region receives a similar amount of rainfall as Maryland (800 ml), so must deal with the deadly barber pole worm.  Australia's approach to worms is very different from ours. Because the flocks are so large, no selective deworming is practiced.  It would take too long to FAMACHA score so many sheep. So, everyone in the flock or mob is dewormed, regardless of (individual) need. Fecal egg counts, from random sheep, are used to determine the need for deworming.  Dewormers with multiple actives are usually used.


One night, we attended a lecture at the university. We were late, so we missed the lecture about Koala Bears. Instead we learned about feral cats and some other small predatory mammal (I don't recall its name) . Afterwards, we went trapsing through the woods -- in the dark -- looking for Koala Bears. Apparently, the woods near the university were known to be home to a few. We saw traces -- scratches on the trees -- but no bears. We saw a few other wildlife, but nothing too exciting, especially considering we were in the dark. 


Many Australians have never seen a Koala Bear. For a tourist, it would be pure luck to sight one. We didn't see kangaroos either, except one splatted the road. While driving, a wallabe (they look just like Kangaroos) darted out in front of us. We saw another wallabee at the university when we were parking the car. We sensed something was wrong with him (her?) because it didn't seem fazed by us.


We asked Michael about kangaroos. He said there were lots on his farm. In fact, he's allowed to kill up to 300 roos, as they are a farm pest. We hadn't see any. So, he took us for a Kangarooo drive in his yute (truck). It was definitely, one of the highlights of our trip. We were in the front of the truck. The French backpackers were in the back. I don't know what was more fun:  chasing kangaroos or listening to the French girls get bounced around in the back of the truck. Michael managed to stir up a few roos, but we didn't get close enough to get any good photos. They were a blur.


Michael made arrangements for us to visit a few farms in the Kentuck area. Big sheep area.  Mostly Merinos. One of the farms we visited was a Merino stud. On the day we visited, they were sorting through their rams. All of the rams had electronic ID (EID) and copious data. The rams were being visually inspected for fleece quality and structure. As sheep go, Merinos aren't the prettiest. There is a desire to make them a more dual purpose sheep. Getting lambing rates above 100 is a primary goal. It didn't sound like Merinos were the best mothers.  But, oh, their wool!


The other farm we visited was a stud farm that raised Poll Merinos and White Suffolks. It was shearing day. They were shearing the Suffolks.


Our last visit was to a wether trial at the Glen Innes Research Center, north of Armidale. It was shearing day, the first shearing in the three year trial, which culminates with the slaughter of the wethers. Each farmer, supplies ten wethers to the trial. A few had ewes in the trial. The fleeces are skirted before being weighed. In addition to measuring fiber diameter and yield and determining line, a value is established for each fleece. We learned that sheep shearers are unionized. They must take a break for lunch and take other prescribed breaks.


Before leaving the Armidale region, we saw the Standing Stones (in Glen Innes). Unlike Stonehedge, these stones weren't erected until 1988. The stones were erected to honor the Celtic people who helped found Australia. The Blue Mountains was our next destination.  We enjoyed the drive. We found overnight accomodations in Gloucester.


While in the Blue Mountains, we spend the day at Scenic World. We rode     


North Island

From Sidney, we flew to Auckland. We south around Hamilton to a small town called Cambridge. We stayed in a lovely Bed & Breakfast, owned by the parents of one of the farms we planned to visit the next day.  In fact, the owners started the dairy goat farm that their son now ran. We visited two dairy goat farms. Both were members of the New Zealand Dairy Goat Cooperative. The cooperative has about 70 members (shareholders). Their milk is powered and sold as infant formula to Asia. In fact, all milk (cow, goat, and sheep) is made into powder. New Zealand has a very small population. Dairy (cows) is its largest industry. Milk is usually exported as powder.


Both of the goat dairies we visited had about 700-800 does. Almost all the does were Saanen, with a few colored does mixed in. One of the dairies had a double herringbone milking parlor; the other had a rotary (carousel) milking parlor. Unlike the rest of the livestock, the dairy goats are completely housed. They were fed hay, grain, haylage, and fresh green chop.

We didn't get to visit a sheep dairy, despite my efforts, but we did meet with the manager of Maui Milk. Maui Milk is a joint venture between the Chinese and the Maui people. The Maui are the indiginous polynesian people of New Zealand.  Sheep dairying is really being pushed in New Zealand. It would be interesting to fast-forward 10 years to see if the industry is successul. If anyone can commercial sheep dairying, it is New Zealand. One of the limitations is genetics. Due to disease issues, they have imported sheep in many years. Mauro milk was planning to import Lacaune dairy sheep from France.

A trip to New Zealand would not have been complete without a visit to the Agrodome in Rotorua. The Agrodome's famous farm show includes a display of 18 different rams. Each ram takes his place on stage. The Merino. The rams were comical to watch. After trying to steal each other's food, many of them fell asleep, as the show's focus moved away from them.


En route to the Agrodome, we saw the corrugated iron buildings in Tirau. I had read where the buildings were for sale.


Our next destination was Hawke's Bay and the coastal city of Napier. It was a beautiful drive from Lake Tapao to the coast.  Windy roads, hilly pastures, sheep everywhere you looked. On the coast, the agriculture was more diverse with vineyards and fruit production. Oure hotel was on the waterfront. We enjoyed a delicious seafood dinner at the Thirsty Whale.


From Napier, we drove to Palmerstown North, as I'd made arrangements to meet with faculty at Massey University. We went to the pastures where the sheep were kept, high up on the hills. A number of wind turbines. They were doing some early weaning research. Around lunchtime, we visited the Fielding Sale Barn. The pens were out in the open. Cattle were run through a sale ring, while agents went from pen to pen selling lambs. They weighed 8 to 10 lambs in each group, but the weights weren't shared. They would be in the market report the next day. Lambs were sold by the head. They didn't bring near as much as they would have in the United States. We had lunch at the Salebarn Cafe. You can always get good food at the stockyard. We went back to the university and met with Dr. Bill Pomeroy, who had done a sabbatical at Langston University. 


The next day, we had to do a little backtracking, as one of the farms on our agenda was in Taihape. I had made arrangements to stay at the River Lodge, near the farm. It was near the farm, but not near Taihape. It was a neat place, but without Wi-Fi or cell phone service. The highlight was going horseback riding. My horse's name was Rio. He sensed that I was an amateur. He kept sneaking something to eat. They taught us how to ride without using a bit, only a rope. We rode through sheep pastures. It was picturesque, but the sheep weren't very well managed (absentee owners).


The farm we visited raised sheep, goats, cattle, and deer. The goats were Kiko.


South Island

The earthquake altered our travel plans. Originally, we had planned to take the ferry from the North Island to the South Island and drive the coastal highway to Christchurch. On November 13, 2016, a 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck New Zealand's South Island. The epicenter was Kaikoura. Roads and railways were knocked out. The route would not open for many months. So, we flew from Wellington to Dunedin and reversed the order of our South Island visits.


Since the airport was away from the city, we didn't get a chance to see Dunedin or any of its attractions. Instead, we ventured south down the coast. Kaka Point was our first stop. It is a small settlement at the northern edge of the Catlins. We had a nice meal there, before heading to Nugget Point. The Nugget Point Lighthouse was well worth the walk, breath-taking scenery all along the way. We saw lots of seals in the rocks below. Unfortunately, they were too far away to get any good pictures.

After Nugget Point, we drove to Roaring Bay.  Roaring Bay is known for being home to Yellow-Eyed Penguins. We were told that about 20 pairs made their home there. We walked to the hide, in hopes of catching a glimpse of some penguins, but we didn't see any. We were there at the right time (before sunset) and were patient (we waiting over an hour), but it was not to be.


We didn't quite reach the southern most point in New Zealand (Slope Point), as we ventured inland, before seeking accomodations in Edendale. It was leaving Edendale enroute to Gore that I got pulled over for driving too slow. There are no four lane highways in New Zealand. If traffic starts to follow you, you are supposed to pull off the side of the road and allow them to pass. Apparently, a long line of cars was following me, including a truck carrying cows. I hadn't noticed them. The officer was very nice and didn't give me a citation. Ironically, I was mailed two speeding tickets from Australia. They arrived after I got home.


In Gore, we visited a Southdown and Romney Stud:  Merrydowns. I grew up raising Southdowns and promised myself that if I ever visited New Zealand, I would visit a Southdown stud. I found the farm on the Internet and the owners graciously agreed to host me. Their sheep were impressive, both breeds.

The next farm we visited was one that I found while trying to learn how technology was being used in New Zealand. This farm was doing it all. In fact, many trials had been and were being conducted there. They were raising some of the composites we had previously learned about. They brought in a group of lambs and demonstrated the automatic weighing and drafting. They showed us their pedigree-matcher or "parenting gate," which matches dam and offspring based on movements through the gate. One of the challenges with large flocks is collecting pedigree data. The flocks are too large to individually ear tag each lamb. Lambs are usualy tagged at marking. By then, it is too late to match them with their dams. Eventually, the electronic ear tag may be able to match dam and offspring.


We learned how auto weighing and drafting could be used on a commercial farm. The system can automatically sort lambs into 16 different pens, depending on the sort criteria.


From Gore, we drove to New Zealand's High Country. We passed through another wine-growing area. We watched the scenery change. We enjoyed seeing the blooming lupines, in their mixtures of colors. They made spectacular vistas even more spectacular. The High Country looked more like Montana than the rest of New Zealands.


Our first visit was to Earnscleugh Station, a High Country Merino stud. They also had cattle. Besides being a beautiful property, this farm was very impressive in its used of technology. They used EID to identify their stud sheep and had all the equipment for automatic weighing and drafting. The owner showed us some of his stud rams, going over each of their records.


We visited a Boer goat farm in Cromwell. The farmer told us to meet him at the "Big Fruit."  We weren't sure what that meant until we arrived in Cromwell where a giant sculpture of fruit greeted us. The farm was right across the road.  On this farm, we saw more rabbits that goats and learned how devasting rabbits have become.


Before we left the high country, we enjoyed accomodations at another high country sheep station. We stayed in an A-framed house at Dunston Merinos. We didn't tour the farm, but learned the farm was crossing its Merinos with other breeds. As we left Omarama, we encountered a mob of sheep on the road.


Our last official visit was to Lincoln University in Christchurch. We were hosted by Andrew Greer.


On the day we flew home, we visited the International Antarctic Center, which is a stone's throw from the airport in Christchurch. It was a very well done museum/attraction. I'm not sure if it's satisfied my desire to visit Antarctic. In one room, they simulated the conditions at Scott Base in Antarctic. Scott Base is New Zealand's base of operation in Antartica. Outside, they had an obstacle course,   

This article was written in 03.03.17 by Susan Schoenian.

bottom of page