Fisherman hooks more cattle awards

LAND AND SEA: Farming follows fishing in the Smith family, but that hasn’t stopped them from excelling in teat calf raising.
LAND AND SEA: Farming follows fishing in the Smith family, but that hasn’t stopped them from excelling in teat calf raising.

Clem Smith is a fisherman first and farmer second.

A good case could be made for reversing the rankings if he carries on his winning ways, but it's unlikely.

The eel fisherman and his wife, Alexandrine, for the third time won the silverware for the best heifer calves at the annual series of calf sales at Canterbury Agricultural Park in Christchurch.

SECONDARY PURSUIT: Top calf producers Clem and Alexandrine Smith treat cattle farming as an enjoyable offshoot of their fishing business.
SECONDARY PURSUIT: Top calf producers Clem and Alexandrine Smith treat cattle farming as an enjoyable offshoot of their fishing business.

Against top yardings over four sales, and rivalling many larger operators, the offshoots of the Smiths' small herd of 32 mostly angus cows showed their class. A pen of 10 heifer calves made $670 each and the Oakleigh Osborne Memorial Trophy.

Smith's story is a "bit different" from the average beef cattle operator's.

He spends more time on his nets than on the 46-hectare farm, half of which is leased. When he returns to shore the work is divided between letting the calves do what they do best - grow - and planting native trees and shrubs.

That's not to say that the angus cows don't have a happy life while they are at the Taumutu farm, down the road from Lake Ellesmere/Te Waihora.

"I mainly let the cows look after themselves. Cows are not like sheep, where you have to be there every day and keep an eye on them most days. I am not overstocked, so that means they are not being pushed and it allows for a happy life. If they are happy, I'm happy. Happy cows produce good calves and I think we have to treat animals with respect."

Nor do the Smiths fit the conventional stereotype for farming couples.

Smith met his younger wife a few years ago when he travelled to the island country of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean, off the coast of south-east Africa, to teach villagers how to catch and farm eels.

This is something he knows about after close to 40 years on the lake harvesting eels, flounder and yellow-eye mullet. Before him his father fished flounder for a living from 1945 to 1956 on the shallow lagoon at the foot of Banks Peninsula until a bad year saw him turn to building and then teaching.

Smith started in 1976 and couldn't imagine doing anything else.

The couple live at the lake- edge settlement of Fisherman's Point and the farm is set further back at the southern end of the lake.

Nets are set for flounder and yellow-eye mullet. The eels, caught with tunnel-like fyke nets, are exported to Europe and to China and other Asian nations. Smith works with two other eelers who combine their quota for 60 tonnes, mainly fishing in the summer months.

Russia was a market until the Ukraine crisis. The flounder were once sold to Australia until New Zealand's strong dollar killed that market and they are consumed mostly on the domestic market.

"I'm definitely a fisherman, and don't consider myself a farmer. I bought the land cheaply when Roger Douglas decided to make farming a business. I run the cows and mainly plant a lot of native trees each year. It's great and starting to look good now."

Within the area is where Maori grew kumara. Gravel pits on the Smith's Taumutu farm are suspected to have once been the source of gravel for kumara growing down the road.

From late April to May the angus cows go to one of Leeston breeder Tony Partridge's charolais bulls. This combination of bloodlines provides the frame for the quick-growing angus-charolais cross calves, but it's the abundance of good feed that brings them to a carcass weight of about 370 kilograms when they enter the city saleyards.

There is no scientifically augmented diet. The calves grow up on grass and brought-in hay and straw.

Smith doesn't go into deep studies of livestock nutrition or breeding, and leaves them pretty much to their own devices.

He likes the angus breed, but for one reason or another has been known to pick up the odd orphan and a stray friesian if the kids take a shine to it. Otherwise he stays with the black breed.

Calving is in the middle of July and this early calving means they are set up for the spring grass growth. To get their rumens going, he likes to feed a little hay.

The eel fishing in the summer allows them to take trips to Madagascar or other warmer countries in early winter. June can be quite nice on the lake, and Smith would prefer to be away later, but the holidays are cut short by calving in the first week of July.

Eel fishing gave him a career, the earnings to buy his farm and raise his calves, and the opportunity to meet Alexandrine.

Over the course of two years he travelled to Madagascar, once a French colony, to teach eel fishing.

"It was a South African company that wanted to set up an eel production company, and wanted the locals to catch eels and fatten the glass (young) eels. I didn't charge them much and felt guilty charging a third-world country. I took their most beautiful woman, so that was fair enough."

Madagascar's reputation as a biodiversity hotspot, with much of its wildlife evolving in relative isolation, and therefore not found elsewhere, is under threat.

Smith says it's sad seeing much of the native vegetation being toppled by development on the island.

"It has (much) of the world's diversity but is being destroyed and the locals have no idea what is happening. They have to feed themselves and conservation is a rich man's luxury. Sadly it is."

Most of the native marmorata eels were caught in a large canal built by the French under colonial rule.

Smith's commercial connection with Madagascar ceased when the eel business blew up in acrimonious fashion after eel demand nosedived in Europe.

He was teaching fishing at a village where Alexandrine worked, by the river and not far from her home village. The courtship was difficult, as Malagasy and French are the islanders' official languages and Smith isn't very good with languages.

This seemed to be no deterrent, and after working visits in 2010 and 2011 they married and set up home near the lake. Alexandrine works closely with the calves, taking in the orphans.

Next month the couple will return to Madagascar and Smith is looking forward to tasting the island's steak again.

"One of the things I really noticed with Madagascar are their cows, the zebu, and they are horrible looking things with their great, large horns and large humps. They are ugly, but, gee, they taste good. I think we breed the taste out of our meat and the zebu might be horribly stringy things, but they are beautiful to eat, and I'm looking forward to going back to Madagascar to see Alex's family in June."

Fishing is the main income earner for the Smiths, and this explains the good life the cows and calves have at Taumutu.

One half of the farm is home to the calves - the other half, with better soils, is leased out for mixed cropping and raising beef cattle.

The cows and their calves are well looked after without being overhandled. Apart from being de-horned and tagged they are allowed to roam the paddocks and get on with life.

Smith says the cows probably have the luxury of not being the couple's primary income.

The mixed-age cow herd is culled lightly and many of the good older cows are kept, although Smith is considering taking a sterner hand with the lower performers.

This easy-care, lightly-lightly approach seems to work, with Smith receiving the best heifer trophy in 2008, 2010 and this year. For some reason the trophy for the best steer calves has eluded him.

Smith says it was an honour to win against top competition.

However, that won't entice him to take more of an intensive stand in his cattle farming.

"They are not pushed and they are reasonably well fed because they don't have much competition with feed because they are not overstocked. I pretty much leave them alone."

The Press