Red cattle light up Shannon farm

01:56, Aug 10 2012
red cow
RED CATTLE: Kelvin and Kath Lane with their red poll cattle at their Shannon farm.

The late afternoon rain clouds have fled to the Tararua Range and a watery sun casts a soft light across the rolling pastures. In this light, a mob of cattle take on an exotic hue, their velvety, chocolate-red coats radiating a warm, lustrous glow.

It would be wrong to say farmer Kelvin Lane is unmoved, but he's showing off his cows and his eyes are on their straight backs, muscled bodies and calf-bearing hips.

It is the dark red colour that first attracted him to the cattle, which are of the uncommon red poll breed. "They're different, aren't they?" he says.

And, like any keen breeder, he insists the difference is more than skin deep.

He and wife Kath were visiting her family in Dunedin when he first spotted the red polls at Seacliff. He stopped, talked to the farmer, found out more about them and ended up buying five yearling heifers and a bull.

It was 1992 and their farm in Kaihinau Rd near Shannon was a symbiotic blend of dairy cows and sheep. The red polls provided the missing beef element.

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"They crossed well with the jerseys we had, providing a hardy calf we could rear," Lane says. "They are also good milkers and their genetics found their way into our dairy herd. We had 30 of them in the herd at one time."

Now the couple have 120 breeding cows, part of the 2000 red poll cows on 70 farms nationwide.

Lane says farmers' natural aversion to an uncommon breed seems to be disappearing as their numbers grow and they find out more about them. He has seen sale prices rise and the last time he took 30 steers to the Feilding sale they fetched $2.24 a kilogram, similar to traditional black cattle.

The red poll is said to originate from cattle brought to England from Denmark by invaders more than 1000 years ago but was not registered as a breed till late in the 19th century. The first cows were shipped to New Zealand at the turn of the 20th century.

One of the red poll's attractions is that it is naturally polled (without horns) and calves don't have to be debudded, an expensive and sometimes painful operation.

Lane enthusiastically describes other features. "They are hardy, coming through winter better than other breeds I have seen. They're quiet, they're good mothers with lots of high-protein milk and they do a calf really, really well, and not just their own calves - they will mother other calves just as easily."

The calves grow quickly and are sold before a second winter. The meat proportion of the carcass is 62 per cent, a respectable return for any beef breed.

He also enthuses about the breed's taste, saying the fine- grained meat has a rich beefy flavour.

This is confirmed by Two Fat Ladies chef Clarissa Dickson Wright, who on the British Red Poll Society's website describes it as an "exquisite and unique".

But, like many other sheep and cattle breeds, their meat cannot be bought separately; it disappears into New Zealand's anonymous meat processing system.

Lane, a still-active 69-year-old, left school at 15 to work on a Rongotea dairy farm. "We sorted out the milk from the mud," he says with a smile.

But 2 years of freezing works labouring was needed to raise the $1000 necessary to get a government loan to buy stock to go sharemilking. Four years later, $9000 was "scratched together" as a down payment on a 36-hectare crown lease dairy farm.

Eight years later, married to Kath and with a growing family, he saw an advertisement for a hill country block near Shannon.

"It was as rough as one thing . . . but the agent talked me into buying it - $49,000 for 640 acres [259ha]."

They paid $6 a head for 950 romney ewes and added cattle from their dairy farm, which by then had been freeholded.

THEN they struck sheep farming's awful 80s, when subsidies were removed, stock prices plummeted and interest rates soared.

Many sheep farmers left the industry and it was only the couple's dairying income that carried them through.

Lane increased their chances of survival by switching sheep breeds to perendale, a blend of romney and cheviot. "The romneys we had weren't suitable for the hills," he says. "They weren't very hardy and were wool-blind.

"I saw perendales at my neighbour's. They never had the troubles we had. The sheep were much better mothers and the lambs were better at finding their mothers."

His lambing percentage rose and income improved.

However, he had to invest in better fencing, with the perendale rams likely to roam far if given the chance.

By 1990, they had sold the dairy farm and bought 168ha of easy land close to their sheep farm. They converted it to dairy, eventually milking 300 jerseys, and used it to finish their lambs.

It was hard work for the couple, but proved a useful counterbalance in the ups and downs of sheep and dairy farming that continued through the next 15 years.

"We couldn't guarantee from one year to the next whether we'd be in the red or not but it worked pretty well. When one was down, the other would be up."

Gradually, dairying income became more reliable and allowed them to expand. They bought 385ha of hills at Pongaroa in northern Wairarapa in 1997 and put on 1350 perendale ewes.

The Pongaroa farm was bought to take their dairy grazers over winter and meant a lot more work.

Lane says they couldn't have done it without the perendales back at Shannon. "We left them on the farm to manage themselves and they didn't let us down."

Eight years later, looking for an easier life, they sold the dairy herd and bought another farm at Pongaroa. It is 324ha of summer- safe hills and land so fertile that the clay beneath the soil does not appear when bulldozing tracks.

Already convinced of the value of offsetting dairy and sheep's fluctuating fortunes, having farms either side of the ranges means the couple can apply the same principles to the weather.

"When it is wet and unpleasant in Pongaroa it will be fine at Shannon, or vice versa," Lane says.

The farms have 4000 breeding ewes between them, with the perendales receiving an infusion of romney genes in recent years to counter the dominant cheviot genes. Lane describes them as romdales.

He went out of dairying before some of the high-payout years but helping to balance that has been one year of spectacular sheep prices. In February last year at the Feilding saleyards he watched in amazement as a line of his two- tooths rose rapidly in spirited bidding to eventually fetch $285 each.

"I don't want to see that again. It was due to speculating, not investment. We're in farming for the long haul and we expect the quality of our sheep to be recognised with moderate prices."

At an age when he should be slowing down, he admits it is hard to do.

"I've always had my health and I'm the sort of person who has to be occupied.

"When you're younger you put in a lot of effort and when you're older you don't need to put in so much because you have the experience to avoid some of the pitfalls.

"I'd like to ease out of the stock work but my biggest fear is that the farms will fall down if I do.

"That reminds me, there's some fencing needs replacing."

The Dominion Post