Find­ing the wagyu

In­creased con­sumer de­mand for mar­bling in lamb is like wav­ing a red rag to a Bull

Central Queensland News - - RURAL WEEKLY - JAMES WAGSTAFF James.wagstaff@news.com.au

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.”

EWE BOOTY

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.

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