Beef pioneer David Black­more, Cargill Aus­tralia CEO Philippa Purser and farmer Ste­wart Hamil­ton give their takes on the chal­lenges in agribusi­ness

The Australian - The Deal - - Front Page - BY SUE NEALES AND DAMON KITNEY

David Black­more’s wagyu steaks are found in only the most exclusive restaurants in Aus­tralia and over­seas. “It is qual­ity that sets us apart,” says Black­more from his Goul­burn River farm at Alexan­dra in north­east

Vic­to­ria. “Our beef has a unique flavour and tex­ture that in­ter­na­tional chefs have com­pared favourably with the best Ja­panese wagyu.”

Back in the 1980s, Black­more, a fifth­gen­er­a­tion farmer, and his wife Julie, be­came fas­ci­nated with the Ja­panese breed with its world

class meat mar­bling, taste and ten­der­ness. They de­vel­oped con­tacts with tra­di­tional Ja­panese beef breed­ers, al­though ex­ports of cat­tle were banned as the na­tion­al­is­tic Ja­panese wanted to pro­tect their unique in­dus­try. Then in 1992, the Ja­panese un­ex­pect­edly re­laxed their re­stric­tions and, for the

first time, cat­tle breed­ers in Ja­pan al­lowed wagyu cows to be ex­ported to theUS and then to Aus­tralia.

Con­vinced that Aus­tralian beef should taste bet­ter and be of higher qual­ity, the Black­mores

se­cured exclusive rights to im­port full-blood wagyu em­bryos and se­men into Aus­tralia for their own use and for sale to fel­low cat­tle breed­ers. In 1996, the Ja­panese shut the door again. But Black­more main­tained his de­vo­tion

to the busi­ness and has be­come Aus­tralia’s best­known breeder of wagyu cat­tle with a herd of more than 1200 cows — the largest herd of full

blood wagyu beef out­side of Ja­pan. It’s a busi­ness worth mil­lions ev­ery year as Black­more’s wagyu steak is served in the coun­try’s best restaurants, in­clud­ing Neil Perry’s Rock­pool in Syd­ney with an un­prece­dented price tag of $115 a steak, while also be­ing ex­ported to restaurants and ho­tels in more than 14 coun­tries for about $150 a kilo­gram.

Black­more’s work on de­vel­op­ing the wagyu breed of cat­tle in Aus­tralia has led to him be­ing com­pared to John Macarthur, who de­vel­oped merino sheep in the colo­nial days.

Breed­ing wagyu beef is a com­plex busi­ness, es­pe­cially when keep­ing de­tailed records to show that ev­ery cow and its prog­eny can be traced di­rectly back to Ja­panese an­ces­tors. None of Black­more’s herd has had its blood­lines — or its meat qual­ity — “di­luted” through cross­ing with “in­fe­rior” breeds such as An­gus or dairy cows, as in other commercial wagyu op­er­a­tions such as the large herd de­vel­oped by AACo.

It has been a time-con­sum­ing busi­ness but has

meant his wagyu beef rapidly be­came Aus­tralia’s

best-known “su­per-top” meat brand. “Our suc­cess

comes be­causewe are al­ways chas­ing car­cass and

meat qual­ity in mar­bling score, tex­ture, flavour ten­der­ness and dressed weight,” Black­more ex­plains early one golden morn­ing on his lush

farm lo­cated in the bends of the Goul­burn River. “It re­quires an at­ten­tion to de­tail and a pas­sion for cre­at­ing the best beef in the world. I pur­posely built a herd to pro­duce the best beef car­casses, not bulls. With­wagyu, the meat is more valu­able than I would be paid if I sold stud an­i­mals.”

Black­more is a great be­liever in the abil­ity of Aus­tralian food prod­ucts to cap­ture the pres­tige end of boom­ing Chi­nese de­mand for high-qual­ity, safe food. He is meet­ing this need al­ready, sell­ing his wagyu beef into five star-restaurants and the best ho­tels in Bei­jing, Hong Kong and Shang­hai.

It has not been easy com­pet­ing against the be­lief that real wagyu comes from Ja­pan. He has done it, he says, in a way he be­lieves more Aus­tralian food brands and prod­ucts should build on. “That point of dif­fer­ence is that our wagyu meat is pro­duced in a clean, green en­vi­ron­ment. Our cat­tle are raised hu­manely, are not kept in feed­lots, our an­i­mal wel­fare stan­dards are high, chem­i­cals and hor­mones aren’t used rou­tinely, we are dis­ease-free and have life­time trace­abil­ity of ev­ery an­i­mal.”

To rear wagyu cat­tle pro­duc­ing pre­mium beef out­side an in­ten­sive feed­lot en­vi­ron­ment— such as is used by most other big commercial cross­bred wagyu en­ter­prises in Aus­tralia in­clud­ing Rangers Val­ley and AACo — Black­more has in­vented and patented an “eco-feed­ing” sys­tem. At Alexan­dra, 25 young cat­tle are run in each 2ha fenced pad­dock of grass by the river, but they are

also fed ra­tions of grain, fi­bre, hay and other nat­u­ral foods to erad­i­cate sea­sonal vari­a­tion in pas­ture qual­ity and en­sure they gain the tar­get weight of 0.8kg each day. “They eat the ra­tions but they are not feed-lot­ted an­i­mals,” says Black­more. “We also

find­when they are kept ina grassy pad­dock they put on 20 per cent ex­traweight be­cause they are hap­pier and can lie down and en­gage in nat­u­ral be­hav­iours.”

He made the switch from feed­lots — where cat­tle are kept in out­door yards and fat­tened daily via trough feed­ing for the last few months of their lives — a fewyears ago. He is con­vinced that cat­tle per­form and grow bet­ter in open spa­ces. And he also be­lieves cat­tle feed­lots have a high chance of even­tu­ally be­ing phased out, just as a con­sumer back­lash against bat­tery hens and sow-stalls in pig­geries led to eggs, pork and ba­con from such farms be­ing black­listed by Coles andWool­worths.

“Un­til a fewyears ago, mostAus­tralian farm­ers were at odds with the an­i­mal wel­fare groups and called them all crack­pot gree­nies, but we have taken the op­po­site ap­proach,” he says. “Whether they are right or­wrong, an­i­malwel­fare groups have the pub­lic ear and have changed the­way the poul­try

and pig in­dus­try farms. I de­cided not to fight it but to em­brace what they are say­ing and to make sure we are al­ways one step ahead of any change in con­sumer and an­i­mal wel­fare think­ing.”

Black­more is an equally for­ward thinker on other is­sues fac­ing Aus­tralian agri­cul­ture. He be­lieves the right of farm­ers to farm their land must be bet­ter pro­tected, whether from min­ing in­ter­ests com­pet­ing with food pro­duc­tion, the en­croach­ment of hobby farms and sub­ur­bia on some of the best agri­cul­tural land, or city folk mov­ing next door to work­ing farms for the ru­ral am­bi­ence then promptly com­plain­ing about the noise of the milk­ing shed, the cows or the trac­tor.

He would like to see a re­newed po­lit­i­cal push to de­velop out­back north­ern Aus­tralian for ir­ri­gated agri­cul­ture and crop pro­duc­tion— help­ingAus­tralia be­come a food bowl for Asia, ac­cord­ing to pop­ulist the­ory. He be­lieves that try­ing to farm in the Gulf and North­ern Ter­ri­tory by damming wet sea­son, in­ter­mit­tently run­ning rivers and in­stalling vast ir­ri­ga­tion schemes is a na­tion­al­is­tic pipedream. If Aus­trali­awants to dou­ble its agri­cul­tural pro­duc­tion by 2030, he ar­gues, it would be bet­ter to work on in­creas­ing the pro­duc­tiv­ity of ex­ist­ing farms, since mostof thebest agri­cul­tural land­has­been­de­vel­oped and farmed over the past two cen­turies.

“Just look at the Ord [Ir­ri­ga­tion scheme]; it’s taken 50 years to get to the point where any­one

is mak­ing a profit up there and it is still a re­ally

tiny scheme. It would be much bet­ter to work on im­prov­ing, re­vi­tal­is­ing and in­vest­ing in ex­ist­ing farms, in­clud­ing with bet­ter govern­ment ad­vi­sory ser­vices.” He has no doubt this would lead to a doubling of over­all pro­duc­tion in Aus­tralia. “You only have to look what the best farm­ers are do­ing and du­pli­cate that more widely.”

Black­more also wants to see Aus­tralian farm­ers and food ex­porters get more ag­gres­sive with their­mar­ketingand­tostop­com­petingonprice be­cause qual­ity in­evitably suf­fers. “Aus­tralia has so many ad­van­tages over the rest of the world yet we of­ten seem scared to ask for a higher price for our [food] prod­ucts or to build on our strengths. We should be out there shout­ing from the rooftops that our food qual­ity is the best in the world; that it is safe, healthy, chemical-free and trace­able, gov­erned by strict an­i­mal wel­fare, en­vi­ron­men­tal and food stan­dards, and that we don’t have nasty dis­eases like foot-and-mouth and mad cow here.”

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