Sniffing out the gems
The small bumps and indentations on a dog’s nose look remarkably like the outside of the truffle, and using a nose like that is the easiest way to find these underground treasures. It’s only in the last five years that more trained dogs have started to find truffle in ever-larger numbers in NZ, a combination of better training regimes, better breeding and, in a lot of cases, truffles being ripe and ready to be found.
When you work with a dog this closely, they become your best friend and closest work colleague which is one of the best parts of the job, and potentially the most heart-breaking. That’s what happened to Jax Lee this past winter.
“Digger had to put down this season, he got cancer… I was distraught because I work by myself and I’m a wee bit of a crazy dog lady, I’ll admit.”
That big loss meant young Freddy had to step up in just her second season. She was a six month old pup during her initial training in 2014, following around after the experienced and trusted Digger.
“I’m very much that if it’s a dog that’s trainable, if it searches with its nose, and wants to please its owner it can find truffles,” says Jax. “Freddy picked it up really quickly last year but just couldn’t work for that long, her attention span wasn’t quite developed. This year, when we had Digs for about the first three weeks, then had to put him down, she had a crash course.”
Jax and Freddy follow a fairly established pattern of truffle dog and truffle hunter, working for 30 minutes or so sniffing out the truffles.
“I mark the truffles, then sit her down with some water and tie her up and she’s forced to rest while I dig out the ones she’s marked. Depending on the day, we’ll do that for about half a day.
“With her I’m pretty confident that she’s finding them all because she finds the most ridiculously little ones. It’s something I had to learn quite quickly, you’ve got to really trust your dog.”
But no matter how good the training, there are times when the drive for a treat overwhelms even the best dog.
“You know when they’re just trying to get a treat, they’ll mark something and look at you, and you’re like ‘really?’ and carry on walking and they think ‘bummer, that didn’t work’. They’re quite funny, they’re cool to work with.”
Nelson grower Rebecca Hamid confesses she is not a dog person, so getting their dog Meg was a big step.
“It probably took me at least a year to get my head around the fact that we really would have to have a dog. There’s something about the smell of dogs I don’t like and I can smell them from a long way away. Pete’s always liked dogs, so he’s the chief dog owner, but I think I’ve warmed up to it and Meg is a good dog.”
The chocolate spaniel is from good truffle dog lines and uses a dab of her paw to mark a truffle says Peter.
“She will get onto a truffle and it becomes really obvious that if she’s interested, her tail goes mad, and the sniffing intensifies very noticeably and she’ll actually mark it for you. That makes a huge difference because it’s a more precise indication of where the truffle is.
“It’s quite important to reward the dog only when you’ve found it, and out of interest, Meg gets a piece of cheese – she doesn’t get cheese for any other thing.”
Working out which puppy is going to be a great truffle dog starts at birth. Trainers dab truffle oil onto the belly of mothers feeding pups so they immediately equate food with the aroma of truffle.
Grower Tania Billingsley is lucky enough to have a top truffle dog trainer in the family – her brother-in-law Andy – and one of the tops dogs in the country, a spaniel named Ozzy. Her observations about truffle dogs and truffières lead her to believe the shortage of good truffle dogs has been holding the industry back.
“Now there’s some really good dogs in the country. I think half the problem before was we didn’t have any professional dogs and now there’s quite a few around. If you google it, the companies will come up, and they do drug dogs and they do truffle dogs.
“Truffles have probably been in New Zealand producing longer than people realise but no-one had good enough dogs to find them.”
Facial eczema (FE) is a nasty disease. You can’t see the cause (fungal spores in pasture) and more often than not, you can’t see symptoms of it either (sub-clinical) until a lot of damage has been done to the livers of affected animals, often a large percentage of a herd or flock.
The result is animals that will die, or if they survive they will struggle for a long time, not producing as much meat or milk, losing pregnancies, or they die later on when their body comes under stress, eg during pregnancy.
If you live in the North Island or the top of the South Island, you’ll know about spore counts – talk to your vet, it’s easy to do and the testing is cheap – and that zinc supplementation helps to prevent toxins building up in the liver.
But recent research has shown some alarming statistics. A survey of 106 North Island dairy farms treating their herds with zinc found onethird had cows with damage caused by subclinical FE, despite farmers not finding a single case of animals with clinical signs of peeling red skin on the face and udder, shade-seeking behaviour, shaking of the head, loss of condition, restlessness etc.
The Dairynz and Sustainable Farming Fund research also found only 29% of cattle were actually achieving the serum zinc levels in the recommended protective range, despite 70% of the farmers believing they were running an effective programme. - farmers assumed animals weren’t affected because they couldn’t see clinical signs; - not dosing animals with the right amount of zinc, according to their weight; - not keeping up spore counts through the season, or if they were, not taking samples from the same area of the farm each time so they were getting reliable data.
The only true way to know if your facial eczema prevention programme is effective is to do blood tests on sample animals in autumn, to look for signs of liver damage.