Finding the wagyu
Increased consumer demand for marbling in lamb is like waving a red rag to a Bull
TOM Bull is well on the way to the top of the chops.
The innovative stud sheep breeder from southern NSW is turning industry heads with his scientific quest to create Australia’s best-tasting lamb and bolster farmgate returns for those who produce it.
Tom and wife Phoebe operate Lambpro – Australia’s biggest supplier of terminal and maternal sheep genetics – at Kinross Station, on the banks of the Billabong Creek at Holbrook. Here they run about 6000 registered Primeline, Poll Dorset and Southdown ‘Tradie’ ewes producing genetics for a broad customer base that will this year produce a whopping 800,000 lambs collectively.
Not one to rest on his laurels, Tom sees the newest arm of the business, Kinross Station Hampshire Downs, as a research, development and genetics platform from which to produce premium “five-star” lamb through a focus on breeding for intra-muscular fat or marbling.
In short, a base from which to develop “the Wagyu of the lamb world”.
“Really for us it is just having another terminal sire program that is 100 per cent focused on meat quality,” said Tom, who has a background in the meat processing sector and laments the “blindingly obvious” lack of segmentation in the Australian lamb industry.
“Beef has got the link between branding and quality nailed.
“Angus and wagyu are now billion-dollar industries whereas lamb is still just a commodity.
“There has been this attitude that all lamb eats well, which is not correct.
“Lamb needs brands that offer an eating-quality guarantee – this message has been consistent in most global markets.”
MEAT THE MARKET
TOM said he had followed the Hampshire Down breed for decades, dating back to the early 2000s when he worked with the processing industry on the implementation of the Viascan meat yield measurement technology.
But it was the breed’s more recent performance within the Sheep Co-operative Research Centre information nucleus flock that really prompted him to sit up and take notice.
The nucleus flock tested 840 rams, including one Hampshire Down and one Southdown, for various traits including marbling. Both the Hampshire Downs and Southdown ranked in the top 10 for marbling “and no one really asked the question whether they were the best, the worst or the average (of the breeds)”.
“That prompted me to go and test some more,” Tom said. Four years ago the Bulls started their own progeny test program and while their Southdowns fared particularly well for their propensity for IMF, seven of the eight Hampshire Down rams tested “were right up there”.
This consistency, coupled
Beef has got the link between branding and quality nailed. Angus and wagyu are now billion-dollar industries whereas lamb is still just a commodity.
— Tom Bull
with the breed’s reputation for good growth, suggested to the Bulls they had a future within their flock.
The next step was to source adequate supply and, after scouring the country, they purchased five of the only Hampshire Down flocks in Australia that had a background in performance recording, as many bloodlines originated from the famed Ramsay Park stud.
The purchased flocks included Johnos, Rolling Hills, Telpara (which included the last of the Bundara Downs stud) and Wollandale. The Bulls now run about 500 stud ewes – or roughly half the number of Hampshire Down ewes registered nationally.
“Yes buying these studs involved a pretty big investment but you’ve got to remember there were wagyu embryos that made $95,000 last year,” he said.
“Any export or domestic (end user) market that we have dealt with that has a wagyu product, the first question they ask is ‘Where’s the lamb equivalent?’ That’s what we are trying to develop.”
TOM said there was a big push within industry to find objective measurement for eating quality in lamb and the only way he sees it happening is through controlling genetics.
“If you can control the maternal genetics and the terminal genetics, you have a fair influence on the outcome,” he said.
“We are one of the few businesses in Australia that control both the terminals and the maternals.
“The maternals are where it is won or lost because you can have the best Hampshire ram in the country but if you join it to a bottom 10 per cent animal, you only get the average.”
Tom said the challenge going forward was getting the maternal base up to scratch on eating quality with 80 per cent of maternal self-replacing sires on the Sheep Genetics Australia database in the bottom 20 per cent for marbling.
He said while terminal genetics could be changed within one year there was a lag with the maternals given rams sold this year could still have daughters in the system in 2028.
In 2016, the Bulls launched the Prime Lamb Improvement Company to help them understand “profitability, and consumer acceptance of both our maternal and terminal genetics”.
Information collected by the company is then used in the design and production of sale rams.