Pad­dock to plate leader

The Western Star - - RURAL WEEKLY - James Wagstaff [email protected]­ral­weekly.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.”

PHOTO: FILE

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

PHOTO: FILE

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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