Easy-going breed has tender gene
Sweet-tempered silvery grey cattle make life easy for farmer Mary Kilsby. In the 1970s , Kilsby was considered a rarity - but only by people not used to women farming on their own.
At 25, Kilsby bought her own sheep and beef farm, with a bit of help from her dad, farmer-businessman Jack Kilsby.
“Other people thought I was unusual, but to me I was just doing what I wanted to do," she says.
She remembers going into Levin to buy her first tractor.
“The salesman didn't really want to know me, just had a glazed look in his eye as I asked my questions about horsepower and power take-offs.
"So I took my money down the road to his rival.”
Almost 40 years on from her first farming steps she is still working her original 40 hectares near Levin - though another 200ha has been added - with the help of a part-time woman and in close association with her son Daniel, whose 310ha farm is close by.
Her beef cattle are the uncommon murray grey breed, which originated in Australia more than a century ago. The silvery grey cattle are prized by dairy farmers for their easy calving and sweet temperament.
Kilsby says she first saw them in the early 70s when working on farms in Western Australia. They were an obvious choice for the soft paddocks of her farm.
“I bought a few purebred females with a line of angus cows and bred them up till I had a line of greys. They're not too big, they've got a good meaty carcass and good milking ability. They're easy to handle, good on the hills and can cope with drought - they're a good all-round animal.”
She is calving 80 cows this year and sells all the yearling bulls to dairy farmers in Taranaki, Manawatu and Wairarapa. “I can't sell enough,” she says.
The murray grey's easy-going nature means that on the rare occasion a calf needs help the cows are easy to milk out in the yards. “If a calf can't get up to feed at its mother I just milk her and tube the milk into the calf. It's something you wouldn't dream of doing with another beef cow - standing her in the race and milking her into a bucket - but it's no trouble.”
Lifestylers also like the grey animals but despite their growing dairy fan base the selection of genetic lines is limited within New Zealand. However, she has achieved a notable first - the export of murray grey semen to the home country.
One way to lift the breed's profile would be for its good eating ability to be recognised. The murray grey's meat is popular the National Fieldays at Mystery Creek each year, with the breed society's stall selling 5000 murray grey steak sandwiches over the event's four days.
Research has identified why, with DNA analysis finding murray greys possess a much higher likelihood of carrying genes for tender meat than other more common cattle breeds.
But, like the other breeds, their meat disappears into New Zealand's anonymous processing system.
“It would be nice for the murray grey's tenderness and taste to be acknowledged,” Kilsby says.
But she can see how difficult this would be, with sales direct to retailers hampered by the need to find markets for all of the animal's meat, not just the prime cuts.
Husband Peter Halliday, who died 12 years ago, was a keen collector of antique farm machinery and ancient tractors, bulldozers and assorted implements still gather dust in sheds. He used the old machinery to cultivate and plant crops of barley, asparagus and pumpkins.
Now son Daniel and his wife Rebecca, farming against the Tararua Range, work closely with her, taking her cows in winter and finishing their lambs on her farm.
Younger son Matthew is travelling in Europe and shows no sign of wanting to be a farmer.
Asked if she is happy, Kilsby replies “Yeah. It's a lifestyle as well as a business.
"With Dan nearby it gives me flexibility. I can take time off if I want to.”