Article I Rosie O’Keeffe
Photography I Camilla Duffy Photography
Whilst its centrepiece is an impressive two-storey homestead reminiscent of the grandeur of Victorian and Georgian architecture dating back to 1827, the continued development of its core agricultural enterprises has also put “Lockyersleigh” on the Southern Tablelands map. Matt Onions speaks to Rosie O’Keeffe about the significance of his Goulburn and Gunning properties for his family, and his approach in managing this mixed operation focused on Angus cattle, first-cross lambs, Merino wool and grain production.
Matt Onions believes quality breeds quality.
His approach to managing livestock on properties “Lockyersleigh” north of Goulburn, and “Lerida Station” at Gunning, whilst evolving and adapting the overall farm management practices to include introducing technologies to improve genetics has meant the whole enterprise is achieving top results.
Several years ago he made the decision to change stud breeds for the rams. This has meant the growth of the Merino lambs has also been maximised, more wool being cut whilst the same micron retained, and it has also provided a profitable sheep meat option.
Both properties are run as mixed enterprises with Matt overseeing the overall management of both farms with experienced managers and their teams on each property.
“At “Lockyersleigh” fat lambs are produced, with meat breeding lambs, crossbred lambs, while “Lerida Station” has a landscape with pastures more suited for fattening stock,” Matt says.
“We run 6,000 breeding ewes at “Lockyersleigh”, which are a combination of crossbred and Merinos. We breed between 8,000 and 10,000 lambs off “Lockyersleigh” every year depending on ewe numbers and percentages. We also have up to 300 Angus cows with progeny, keeping all the females and selling the steers at 14 to 15 months.”
Matt’s family involvement in farming dates back more than 170 years, creating a special historical significance. As he walks with his boys Van, 12, Saxon, 10, and Angus, 8, and his wife Katherine, throughout the lush green gardens at the property, he reflects on his involvement in the farm’s management.
Matt grew up on the “Lockyersleigh” property completing his schooling at a boarding school, before attending Orange Ag College and working as a jackaroo near Barraba. He then spent time overseas and moved to Sydney to work in the hospitality industry for 10 years. During that time, a manager was employed to oversee the farm management and after selling cafes he owned in Sydney, he has been concentrating on the management of the farms for the past 10 years.
Matt’s father was Irish, and he says despite not fully understanding our seasons, he proved successful in farming, purchasing a couple of properties in the 1970s and 1980s before selling them to buy “Lerida Station” in the mid-1980s with Matt’s mother Jean and Uncle Bill Ranken. Matt’s father tragically died in an accident when Matt was just 19.
Matt has been involved in the management since then, and in more recent years, combining his time and lifestyle between the hustle and bustle of a Sydney office, working on marketing and planning, and travelling to the properties to get amongst the daily farm tasks the other days during the week.
“I enjoy the physical farm work and constantly tell the kids what I am doing – mostly I end up digging holes and doing plenty of the physical work, but it’s important for me to be at the farm and building the relationships with the managers and other key team members.
“I enjoy it, and my dad was a real entrepreneur in farming. We own the property and it makes sense to run a business that you know,” Matt says.
Significant investments and improvements in infrastructure have been made in recent years at “Lockyersleigh” and “Lerida Station”, including upgraded sheep and cattle yards, road maintenance, and renovations to houses and sheds. The next project is to construct a new shearing shed.
The surrounding countryside at “Lockyersleigh”, is undulating pastureland, dotted with poplars and pine trees. Beyond the garden is a series of outbuildings, garage, laundry, 19th Century shearer’s quarters and machinery shed, all built with bluestone – some ornamented with gabling and orange brick.
It’s believed to be one of the oldest privately owned properties in the Goulburn region. It is one that garners attraction from tour groups and historical societies, and has even been previously used as the backdrop for films and commercials.
The whole farm production is steeped in history with “Lockyersleigh” originally beginning as a land grant of 2,500 acres in 1827 to Major Lockyer.
Matt’s family originally settled at “Lockyersleigh” in the 1850s and the property has remained in the Ranken family for a further four generations.
Whilst Goulburn hasn’t been traditionally renowned for crop production due to the climate and soil types, about five years ago, with guidance from Delta Ag Farm Consultant James Cheetham, that changed at “Lockyersleigh” and “Lerida Station”.
“We were finding that we weren’t able to finish the lambs on pasture and the quality just wasn’t there in the 2000’s, but crops are able to be grown rapidly and in grazing them on these crops you can turn stock off at weights,” Matt says.
About 900ha of crop is sown annually between both properties, with the aim at “Lockyersleigh” to improve the countryside after many years trying to eradicate weeds, particularly serrated tussock.
“We noticed another farmer who traditionally lead the way in the area, had planted grazing canola and we had even put some of our lambs on the canola under agistment, so we started to grow it too.
“We were already growing wheat and triticale and oats. In the last couple of years we’ve sown canola in November after rainfall events and that has been really successful.
“We have found grazing canola to be a resilient plant and can survive on 10 to 20mm of rain for four to five weeks in extreme heat due to its root system. The canola we’ve started to grow more for the growth rates of lambs, performs nearly 20 to 30 per cent better than oats and wheat…
“We have increased our crop production now and most of the cropping is rotational, bringing in new paddocks every year. We are finding yields improve more production out of the paddocks that haven’t been producing much prior.”
Matt says increasing fertilizer inputs is also proving to be profitable in the crop production.
The Merinos have also proven a profitable part of the enterprise in recent years, producing higher percentages than crossbred lambs due to the seasonal conditions.
An agriculture consultant has been advising Matt and his family for 30 years, with a developed focus for Angus cattle on fertility and growth rates and the overall operations on the properties.
Matt says heifers are kept on “Lerida Station” with an artificial insemination program (AI) joining them to high quality bulls.
“It is a way to really super charge our genetics so that we have a herd without outlaying a lot of money for bulls,” Matt says.
“Fertility wise, we generally achieve 95 per cent in-calf each year and the AI program is about 60 per cent plus which is above average, because of our selection. We only keep first and second cycle cows, if any don’t get a calf or lose a calf, we cull, and that’s why we are getting our results.
“We also make sure they are at a certain fat score, and ensure the best feed opportunities to achieve that.”
Whilst 25 to 30 years ago, Matt says there was a focus on Herefords in his family’s enterprise, he believes there is a premium for Angus cattle now and into the future.
“We know who we can regularly sell to – Rangers Valley – and we feel the growth rates are better and the industry has proven they generally are.”
And as Matt looks over the “Lockyersleigh” landscape and the historic buildings with his family, it’s evident he’s proud of his country connection and overseeing the farm into the future.