Leader in pad­dock to plate

The Northern Star - Northern New South Wales Rural Weekly - - News - James Wagstaff news@ru­ral­weekly.com

ASK John Mauger to tell the story of how he got into farm­ing and his eyes light up.

“The first rec­ol­lec­tion I have is from when I was prob­a­bly five years old, steer­ing the trac­tor while Dad fed hay (to cat­tle) out the back,” says the now 59-year-old from near Robert­son, in the rolling hills of the NSW South­ern High­lands south of Syd­ney.

“The rea­son I re­mem­ber it so vividly is that it was the mid­dle of win­ter and my hands were that cold hold­ing the steer­ing wheel.

“But that’s the way it was back then. When I was 12 I used to get on the trac­tor and go spray­ing black­ber­ries by my­self. I’d have the two 44-gal­lon drums strapped in be­hind me – I’d hit a bump and there’d be chem­i­cal all down my back be­cause of course I didn’t have a shirt on.

“There was no safety. No roll­bars on the trac­tors, noth­ing to pro­tect you.”

It was about the same time that John’s fa­ther, Joe, started a butcher shop just down the road in the small vil­lage of Bur­rawang, sell­ing cuts of beef from cat­tle reared on the fam­ily farm.

As John points out, this was decades be­fore the terms prove­nance and pad­dock-to-plate be­came trendy. A time when food was food and the only celebrity chef you knew was Dad on those rare nights he’d give Mum a breather from the kitchen.

The es­tab­lish­ment of the butcher shop in 1972 was not so much an act of ex­pan­sion for the Maugers as it was a ne­ces­sity. John, who would soon be jug­gling school­work with his job as chief “wash-up boy” in the shop, says it was al­most forced on the fam­ily af­ter “the bum fell out of the cat­tle mar­ket”.

“Dad had all these cat­tle and they were worth 700 bucks (but no one was pay­ing that),” he re­calls.

“He thought ‘how am I go­ing to get rid of them?’. The day he opened the shop he went to every house along the road to Moss Vale to ask them whether they’d like to buy a side of beef. He sold one, and the next week he sold two, and away it went.”

At 16, John had given up on school and started work­ing in the butcher shop full-time. By 18, when his fa­ther died, he be­came man­ager.

Pretty soon Maugers Qual­ity Meats was pro­cess­ing 10 of the fam­ily’s cat­tle a week and sell­ing their cuts through the shop. Fast for­ward to now, they process 12 beef bod­ies a week (in ad­di­tion to about 25 lambs and bought-in meat) for Bur­rawang and a Moss Vale butcher shop the fam­ily pur­chased in 2014.

“We were do­ing 14 a week be­fore the s--- hit the fan a few years ago and the price (of cat­tle) went right up,” says John, adding that more re­cent dry con­di­tions had forced him to cur­tail stock num­bers on his 120-hectare farm used to fin­ish about 250 heifers and 300 store lambs a year.

John is in charge of the day-to-day farm op­er­a­tions, hav­ing handed over the butcher side of the busi­ness to his son, Mat, five years ago.

He reck­ons fat­ten­ing stock is a rare art form, with the slight­est mis­take or set­back the dif­fer­ence be­tween mak­ing a profit and a loss.

John buys in stock year-round. Cat­tle are gen­er­ally sourced from the Moss Vale sa­le­yards at nine to 12 months. Lambs are pur­chased four times a year – “a cou­ple of hun­dred at a time” – from Yass.

John said although he was not “a one cat­tle breed per­son” he did pre­fer Bri­tish types – “here­ford, an­gus, mur­ray grey and their crosses” – as op­posed to Euro­pean breeds such as limousin, which “have got to be grain-fed to prop­erly fat­ten”.

While tem­per­a­ment, breed­ing, shape and con­for­ma­tion are all cru­cial, for John it is all about find­ing stock with the great­est po­ten­tial to make a re­turn. The cat­tle are turned off be­fore 18 months to pro­duce a 200kg av­er­age car­cass.

“Be­ing a small busi­ness I have to make money out of what I buy,” he said.

“I can’t just go out and buy the best an­gus cat­tle there are out there.”

On the lamb front, John buys sec­ond-cross stock, and has found suc­cess with white suf­folks and dor­pers. He ad­mits with the lamb mar­ket “pretty hot” in re­cent years “it’s been pretty hard to make money out of them”.

Twice a week John makes the two-hour round trip to the Wol­londilly Abat­toir at Pic­ton with the heifers and lambs to be pro­cessed. It costs him about 10c/kg for the cat­tle to be killed. With lambs it’s about $20 a head. These charges, how­ever, pale into com­par­i­son with “the killer” costs as­so­ci­ated with run­ning the butcher shops, in­clud­ing “10 grand a week in labour” for nine staff. When pressed on how the butch­ery in­dus­try had changed over the past 45 years, John isn’t shy to turn the ques­tion around.

“Well, do you eat round steak? Do you eat blade? Top­side? Sil­ver­side? Nope? Well, there you go,” he said.

“It is all about rump, eye fil­let, scotch fil­let. That’s how it has changed.

“And also it’s a lot more in­tri­cate – we now make pies, beef jerky and it is all time con­sum­ing. In­stead of sim­ply thin and thick beef sausages, there’s beef, pork and lamb sausages, and flavoured sausages.”

De­spite the South­ern High­lands be­com­ing ex­tremely pop­u­lar with “Syd­ney money” push­ing up lo­cal land prices “be­yond farm­ing”, John said he wouldn’t want to do any­thing else. Nine months ago he started con­duct­ing pad­dock-to-plate tours of the farm and butcher shops.

“If I was to sell (the farm), I’d have 10 mil­lion bucks,” he said. “But I’d lose my life­style.

“And it’s the same old story with every farmer.

“I don’t want to lose the fam­ily farm.”


John Mauger of Mauger Meats on his farm near Robert­son in the NSW South­ern High­lands.


Farmer and son team John (right) and Mat Mauger of Maugers Meats in their butcher shop at Bur­rawang in the NSW South­ern High­lands.

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