Pastoral farming contributed signifcantly to the early development of Marlborough following European colonisation. Although overshadowed by the wine industry in terms of reputation, Pastoral farming is still the dominant land use in Marlborough, with 26% of land identified as primary pasture as of 2008, compared to just 2.3% planted in grapes. While vineyards have supplanted pastoral farming at lower altitudes such as the Wairau Plain and lower Awatere Valley, at higher altitudes where the risk of frost is too great, and on terrain too steep for efficient vineyard management, pastoral farming, although no longer Marlborough's primary source of income, remains dominant at least in terms of land area.
The first mob of sheep was driven into Marlborough in 1846 over Tophouse by Nathaniel Morse and Dr John Cooper. Most early pastoral farmers were squatters without land title, however ownership was later established, and concentrated in the hands of a few large estates. Compulsory government acquisition and subdivision followed from 1894 due to a severe shortage of land for settlers. Subdivision of the Flaxbourne Estate helped lead to the establishment of the township of Ward.
Molesworth Station, New Zealand's largest farm at 180,787 hectares was taken over by the Crown in 1938. Held by DOC (Department of Conservation) but managed by Landcorp, the farm runs up to 10,000 beef cattle, New Zealand's largest herd. Historically, Molesworth was used as a stock route between the top of the south and Canterbury, with the historic Acheron guest house providing an important stopping point on the journey.
For many years, a lucerne factory, with its iconic giant silo operated just out of Blenheim, processing lucerne grown on the Wairau Plain as stock food for the region's farms.
A & P shows held annually in Blenheim, Ward, and Rai Valley are a legacy of Marlborough's pastoral heritage.