Canterbury couple breed angus for niche prime market

Owen and Margaret Thomas have tried everything in their 54 years of farming from dairying to pigs and finally breeding ...
TONY BENNY/FAIRFAX NZ

Owen and Margaret Thomas have tried everything in their 54 years of farming from dairying to pigs and finally breeding angus prime beef cattle.

Margaret Thomas is the fourth generation of her family on the 107ha farm a few kilometres from Oxford that she and husband Owen took over in 1963, four years after they were married.

Owen was a townie but moved from Christchurch to Oxford with his parents as a young man and started working on farms in the district, eventually meeting Margaret.

When they started out they milked cows and had a landrace pig stud on the 107ha farm, between Coopers Creek and the Eyre River, sending their cream in cans to the dairy factory at Tai Tapu about 80km away and feeding the skim-milk to the pigs.

Owen and Margaret Thomas breed angus on their farm near Oxford, Canterbury, where they've planted hundreds of poplar as ...
TONY BENNY/FAIRFAX NZ

Owen and Margaret Thomas breed angus on their farm near Oxford, Canterbury, where they've planted hundreds of poplar as windbreaks to slow down the nor-west winds that often roar down from the hills.

"I found a 1968 Tai Tapu dairy company payout cheque the other day," Owen says. "It was 26 cents a pound."

With 50 cows,  plus the pigs, that was enough income to bring up four daughters but over the years they built up their herd."When we started, the cows all had names but we finished up with about 290.  All we did was run faster every year."

They replaced their old walk-through shed with a herringbone and then the cream cans were replaced by a tanker which took whole milk, meaning there wasn't skim milk available for the pigs anymore.  Then their accountant pointed out the pigs were no longer paying their way.

"In those days you didn't get a lot for pigs and the two things clashed, when you should be doing the cows, you're doing the pigs or vice versa," recalls Margaret.  "They'd always be farrowing when we were calving and usually there was just the two of us."

They were able to sell the whole landrace stud to one buyer and in 1980 they used the money from that to drill the first of three wells they now have to irrigate the farm, giving them some security from the droughts which beset Canterbury all too often.

Owen and Margaret are used to seeing the nearby foothills-fed rivers go dry but this summer is one of the driest they've known.

"There's only been two years since we've been here there hasn't been water in Coopers Creek in the spring time and this year was one of them," says Owen.

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"There was no water in the springs this year and also when we had the big drought about 1988-89.  Margaret said that was the first time she could remember that there hadn't been water."

But those dry riverbeds can quickly become flood-swollen when the rain does come and Margaret remembers one flood well.

"I said to Owen at night, 'I can hear that river, it's coming awful close', and he said, 'You needn't think I'm going to go out and have a look now'. Like, he's a townie so he doesn't worry about that."

Owen interjects, "It was in the middle of the night, so I don't know what I was going to do if I did."

"I said, 'I can hear it, it's just out there'," Margaret continues. "In the morning when I got up the debris was about seven feet high up in the willows."

"It was gone in the morning but so were the fences!" Owen laughs. "They were only two wire electric so it wasn't a big deal."

Like other farmers, Owen was an enthusiastic user of superphosphate to grow more grass but he became disenchanted with it as he saw his soil structure deteriorate.  He replaced it with chicken litter, collected from a nearby chicken farm, which he says not only grows grass but builds humus as well.

"It holds the water and we only started irrigating at Waitangi weekend," says Owen.  The centre pivots on Canterbury's big dairy conversions have been running since early summer.

"We haven't got any sophisticated technology, all we do is go out and dig a hole.  If you get a handful of soil and it sticks together, it's wet enough.  If it won't stick together in your hand, it's too dry."

Margaret's parents would be pleased to see a return to simpler methods, she thinks.

"They just believed in natural ways of doing things.  They were green before there were green people about."

"Before it was real trendy.  Not in a stupid way like some of them are now," Owen adds.

They dairy farmed for 45 years during which dairying in Canterbury went though enormous changes as thousands of hectares of what had been sheep, beef  and cropping country was converted and that was the beginning of the end for them. 

"When you're on a small farm in this day and age, it's very difficult to get staff. It's very difficult to get younger, single people because they want the mod-cons, they want to not think, they want to get on a motorbike and sit or they want to push a button and everything works for you, whereas here you have to do a bit of everything," Margaret says.

The final straw came when they hired a young man who came highly recommended and who agreed to start on June 1 to give the Thomas's a chance for an overdue holiday before calving.

"We came home and he's walking up the pathway, this is a fortnight before calving, with piece of paper.  I said, 'What's this?'  He said, 'This is my resignation'."

Their new staff member had been offered a higher paying job on a new, all-bells-and-whistles conversion down the road, leaving Owen and Margaret in the lurch.  Luckily a reliable dairy-farming friend stepped in at short notice to help them but that was to be their last season and the herd was sold.

"That was one of the worst days of my life really," Margaret remembers. "I don't think Owen worried so much because he secretly clapped and said, 'I don't have to milk any more!'."

"All we did was jump out of the frying pan and into the fire," Owen, now in his late 70s, says. "We actually have less time off now than we did when we milked cows."

They moved into rearing dairy heifers and selling them in-calf, spotting a demand for young stock by dairy farmers in spring but discovered the business ethics they'd grown up with no longer seemed to apply.

"The first couple of years were alright and then two years in a row we got done," Owen says.  They ended up making virtually no profit on animals they'd had for 12 months when buyers reneged on the contracts they'd signed.

"The last year we got taken to the cleaners, the bod when he went away with the agent said, 'I know what I'm doing is not fair but I don't care'. The problem was we were dealing in 400 to 500 a year so we had to deal with the big boys who had no compunction whatsoever."

They needed to find another way to make their farm pay, Owen says.  "Margaret said, 'You've had a couple of goes and we haven't done any good. I'd like to have some angus cows'."

Margaret had grown to like angus when she was rearing dairy-cross heifers."Hereford were stubborn and wouldn't feed but angus, they're nice and quiet."

They now have 160 angus breeding cows, 30 heifers and 125 calves and breed twice a year to make the best use of their one bull, reasoning he can cover 40 cows in spring and another 40 in autumn.

"We're hoping to get into a niche market so we've got cattle coming all the year," says Owen.

While other farmers their age have long since retired and moved to town, Owen and Margaret Thomas are still working, with Owen spending three hours a day in summer shifting their three-gun irrigators and then moving stock as well. And they show no sign of giving up farming yet.

"I just couldn't live anywhere where there are miles of people, it's not my thing. I'm so used to being peaceful and quiet."

 - Stuff

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