Murray & Linda Harmer

September 2007
Through resourcefulness and hard work, a Mid-Canterbury couple have progressed to owning a sheep and cattle farm. Starting with nothing as 18-year-old newlyweds, Murray and Linda Harmer have advanced to owning a 240-hectare sheep and cattle farm, Shannondowns, near Staveley.

Murray is one of nine siblings seven sisters and two brothers who are all on farms. There was no way the family farm, Mount Alford, could support them all, so he had to go out on his own. He left school at 15 and went to work as a farm labourer.

Murray and Linda met and married when they were young, and were managing a farm at 19. They returned from an overseas trip with nothing, so Murray started to shear, while Linda worked as a wool classer and shed hand.

They borrowed heavily to buy a 32ha block at nearby Mount Somers. To raise the $110,000 in 1982, they borrowed $85,000 from the Rural Bank at 7.5 per cent interest and $15,000 from the solicitors at 17 per cent interest to add to their $10,000 deposit. They then borrowed another $7000 from Dalgetys to buy stock. After some nervousness at their debt level, the bank lent them another $17,000 to improve the property, Murray says. Their bank manager thought theyd probably go broke.

It took everything they had and could borrow to raise the $410,000 they bid at the auction. "I had to scratch around for another $10,000. I just about had to sell one of the kids." Murray says debt is a big motivator.

One-third of the property is on the flat, one-third is rolling country, and one-third is steep hill country, divided off by a belt of native bush.

When they arrived at the property, the Harmers began to improve it, and carried over the farming system they had set up at Mount Somers.

Initially their system was to buy in-lamb woolly ewes in winter. The ewes were lambed, shorn in January the next year and sold at the ewe sale in Ashburton in February. "That meant we bought the ewes when they were woolly and full of lambs, and when we sold them, they were naked and empty," Murray says.

The Harmers were often able to sell those ewes for the same price theyd bought them for. When the ewes left the property, feeding pressure was eased and more lambs could be bought, finished at 1kg of liveweight a week, and traded.

They used this system for over a decade. In more recent years the arrival of the less robust crossbred ewes has meant that the Harmers have had to change their system.

About four years ago, the Harmers took up the grazing rights for a nearby 5000ha tussock block in high country rising to 2100m, and realised they needed their own line of perendale ewes to make it work.

The new system will involve less work than intensive lamb finishing and the couple are hoping that they can take their feet off the gas pedal.

The bought in in-lamb ewes, have been replaced with 3000 perendales. The Harmers have a summer contract for the lambs, which guarantees space at the freezing works and a set price.

The target is to have lambs off the farm by April to give it a spell for the coming spring. Once the ewes are weaned in late January, they go onto the tussock block and stay there until early April when they are shorn at the home farm.

They are flushed with the ram on April 25, and are put back on the tussock block with the rams for four to six weeks in May, before returning to the home farm during the winter in readiness for lambing.

The Harmers plan to eventually breed their own replacement perendales.

Murray says hes got his eyes on some good quality Perendales from further south from a farmer thats getting out of sheep farming to convert to dairy.

Last year, the Harmers grazed about 600 hoggets from mid-May on a coastal farm near Ashburton. Then the hoggets were brought back to the home farm, shorn and put on the tussocks, before returning with the ewes in early April as two-tooths.

The Harmers do not lamb hoggets an earlier attempt failed to justify the expense of feeding them. They rationalised that it takes the same amount of grass to feed a ewe with twins as a hogget lambing at 80 per cent.

The jury is out on another season with hoggets Murray wants to keep his options open.

The perendales are farmed together with 150 hereford and angus cows . After weaning the cattle go onto the tussock block and stay there until mid-October or until they have calved. Once the calves are big enough to travel, they are driven about 8km home.

When the cows and the sheep go on the tussock block, they are pushed to the back country, and gradually work their way to the lower elevations by early winter.

This keeps the cows off the main farm in the winter and prevents pugging of the Oxford silt loam and Staveley stony soils, which receive about 1520mm of rain a year.

Cattle numbers have grown over the last three years. Theyve grown numbers from around 60 to the current levels. The cattle keep on top of what can be a big growth curve from November.

The farm gets about three to four 150mm snowfalls each year, but last winter's big dump was a setback, causing lambing to be below 100 per cent and the two-tooths to be at 80 per cent to 90 per cent.

The big snow last winter cut into their lamb take, with only 2700 lambs finished this season.

To make life easier, the couple bought a snowmobile. They can now navigate through deep snow from Shannondowns to the back of the tussock block in one hour.

Fencing material was a tender from the Clearwater golf course in Christchurch when it was being converted from a farm. They sold enough to cover costs and used the rest to subdivide our paddocks down to two hectares.

Unable to afford a new four-wheel-drive motorbike, they bought an accident-damaged bike for $800 and several others written off by insurance companies.

Murray put his light-engineering skills to good use on wet days, and he assembled a near-new machine. Another example of the couple's thriftiness was a two-year-old Toyota Prada that had been written off. Murray had the back professionally cut out and repanelled, and built the deck himself.

On wet days, he would do light engineering in the workshop. On fine days, he and Linda would go either shearing or contract fencing. They started fencing with only a shovel and a crowbar, and many of their jobs were on steep hill country. Murray taught himself how to use gelignite.

Around the workshop is evidence of his pennywise purchasing, including bulldozers and a digger, which he paid off by contracting. He designed and built a carpeted rotowiper to control thistles and rushes.

The sheep and cattle yards are under cover. The rails and gates in the cattle area are made from old steel powerlines which have had the zigzag section removed.

The couple's six-year-old house, which they designed themselves and was built with their assistance, has not escaped the thrifty touch. They bought the aluminium joinery for an entire house for a paltry sum, because the glass was lightly scratched. They obtained the carpet through yet another tender.

Murray believes that the future for sheep farming is positive although it looks a little bleak at the moment. Hes concerned that some are looking seriously at dairy conversions. He believes that bad for the industry if large numbers go that way.

Murray thinks that owning a farm may no longer be possible for young farmers today. He reckons you would need $2 million for his place, and he remarks you would be a long time shearing to earn that.