THE SKINNY tree branch mounted on Ash Barr’s garage wall doesn’t look like it could cause too much damage, but it nearly killed the Drumborg dairy farmer.
Ash was feeding calves on November 4, 2016 when the branch fell 11m, spearing him in the head.
“It was an absolute freak accident,” he said. “If I was half a second either way it might have got me on the shoulder or missed altogether but instead it speared straight through my skull.
“I was basically gone; it was only luck that a friend from up the road called in to get some colostrum and found me. If he hadn’t found me, I wouldn’t be here today.”
Photos taken not long after the accident show the huge indentation on Ash’s head.
“I could fit my fist in there!” he said.
“People think it must have been a big branch but it’s not. It’s thin and only about eight-foot long so I’ve got it mounted on the wall of my shed.”
Ash was airlifted to Melbourne and was in a coma for two days. Doctors feared he’d never walk or talk again due to the severity of the head injury.
However, he defied the odds and started the long road to recovery after returning to his farm in far south-west Victoria about six weeks after the accident.
“I had to learn all the basic stuff,” Ash said.
“I couldn’t hold anything in my hand. My speech was absolutely gone; I couldn’t walk and talk.
“The amazing people at the Royal and Richmond Epworth hospitals got me up and going.”
For four months Ash had to wear helmets to protect the indentation until a titanium plate was made and inserted into his head.
“They removed the shattered skull and had to wait till they made the plate and inserted it, so I had to wear a helmet all the time.”
The trauma of the accident couldn’t have come at a worse time. Ash’s partner Narla Saunders had been diagnosed six weeks earlier with breast cancer and was preparing for chemo when the accident happened.
“She had her ordeal and I was there to look after her, then I was out to it,” Ash said. “But she was so strong and has fully recovered. She didn’t even stop work.”
And, of course, there was a farm to run and cows to milk.
Ash grew up on the property. He joined the army at 18 as an apprentice carpenter.
Six years later he returned to the farm, initially as a worker then as a sharefarmer before taking over from his mother, milking 250–260 mainly Friesian cows on a 200 ha main farm and 60 ha out-paddock.
In typical country fashion, the community rallied to support the stricken farmer.
“The farm survived thanks to a lot of great friends and family and the community,” Ash said.
“We have a part-time milker, Julie, but other people put their hands up to help out and we’re so grateful for that, but it’s pretty hard to sit in a hospital bed and not be able to do anything.”
Ash started easing back into farm work in September 2017, around the same time as Clint McKenzie joined the team.
“Because I’d had a major head accident, I had to look after myself,” Ash said.
“I basically followed Clint around and pottered around.”
With support from WorkSafe, Ash started building up to work three or four hours every second day, but on the anniversary of his accident he suffered a seizure.
“Until that seizure I was back driving and my speech was probably where it is at the moment, but I was diagnosed with epilepsy,” he said.
“After the seizure I couldn’t drive for a year or so, it made it hard to do the little things like driving to the out-block or ducking into town for farm supplies.”
Despite a few setbacks along the way, Ash, 42, is able to smile as he poses for a photo with the offending branch.
The farm is in good shape. “The cows are milking well and production has been good since the weather came through,” Ash said.
“I’m very lucky to have Clint and Julie to keep the farm going.
“We’ve been able to rejig the farm, changing little things to make it easier for Julie and especially Clint. For example, we changed calf feeding from twice a day to once, using a milk and powder combination.
“We’ve also changed AI aiming for more heifers, using more sexed semen and clamping down on who gets it, avoiding older cows and those who’ve had trouble in the past.”
The 24-a-side swingover dairy is basic but efficient and suitable for a one-person operation.
Ash helps with some of the farm work but mainly takes a farm management role.
“If I didn’t have Clint and Julie I couldn’t be here. I’d be lost without the farm.
“At the moment I still just want to get back on the road to take the pressure off Narla driving the children and myself everywhere. I just have to look after myself.”