Of the lamb world
As part of the meat quality side of the program, groups of eight to 10 commercial ewes are joined to a ram with the offspring grown out and sent to Thomas Foods International at Tamworth for processing.
Here, both loins are removed, one is tested for meat quality traits such as marbling (Tom has worked with the University of New England to develop an IMF grading score for lamb), sheer force and tenderness, and the other used for consumer taste testing.
“Really it is a process of getting consumer data, marbling data and then looking for that one sire that pops out the top and can do things others can’t... an absolute outlier,” Tom said.
“The angus and wagyu industries were built off outliers... all of a sudden New Design 036 popped up and Angus went up another level, and the wagyu industry is based on a few bulls from which producers can market cattle. This will be no different.”
THE challenge for the Bulls, however, has been to increase eating quality without sacrificing maternal traits such as fertility because, as Tom points out, “at the end of the day you still want them to have a heap of lambs that grow quickly”.
He said it had also proved difficult to find Hampshire Downs with commercially relevant growth, and marbling.
“We have found some rams with good IMF but they are 6kg behind on weaning weight,” he said. At Kinross, the bulk of the Hampshire Down flock lambs in June with ewe lambs following in August.
All rams are genomic tested at lamb marking with this information used to predict marbling traits.
Tom said with 300-400 Kinross rams expected to be born next year genomic work was particularly important because “we want to be able to screen as quickly as possible which ones are going to perform”.
Seventy one of the top 100 rams for marbling on the Sheep Genetics Australia database are Kinross rams, from a total pool of 45,000.
Tom cited weight, age and genetics as the three biggest determinants of marbling and said a lot of work has been done with clients on determining best feed types, and slaughter ages and weights for lambs.
The Bulls are currently growing the Hampshire Down-sired lambs they are using for research purposes out to 30-35kg carcass weight on a combination of grass, roughages and grain.
“But the better we get with the genetics, the less important the feed will become,” he said.
“If you look at angus cattle, as they are getting the genetics better the cattle are performing as well off grass as they used to do off 200 days of grain.”
Tom said the aim wasn’t to have their own lamb product but to be “a research brand in essence”.
“That is one thing we decided from the start... all we want to be able to do is do the genetic research and facilitate our clients,” he said.
“Our client base will produce 800,000 lambs this year so we have the scale to be able to flick a switch and change big whacks of lambs (to adapt to changing consumer demand).”
NOW the wait begins to see if consumers put their money where their mouths are. And the early signs are promising.
The Bulls have worked closely with Meat and Livestock Australia market research data, which suggests consumers in export markets such as Japan are willing to pay almost three times the average price of lamb for “five-star” product.
Australians are willing to fork out two and a half times the average. Tom said while only 4-5 per cent of the population could pay such a premium, in Australia that still equated to more than one million people. Some Kinross Station product has been sold through the Meatsmith specialty butcher chain in Melbourne and next year, “while a lot of it is still R&D”, they plan to have product in China, Japan as well as top-end Melbourne and Sydney markets. Tom said consumer trends were changing, with people choosing to reduce their meat intake during the week. But come the weekend “when they want to splurge”, they were seeking something “that is off the charts”.
“And they want to pay for it – we see that is where we’ve got to be,” he said.
“We’re not going to do it cheap like chicken. Lamb retails four times the price of chicken – that’s the reality.”
Tom said there were also opportunities for the Hampshire Down from a “breed branding” perspective.
“When you mention the word wagyu or angus or even hereford... you know what you think of,” he said.
“Wagyu retails about 29 per cent higher than angus.
“There is an opportunity to use breed branding more in sheep. The Hampshires offer potential for that... everyone loves a rare breed and they are more consistent to say the mainstream Dorset and White Suffolk.” It is Lambpro’s larger clients – “the big players in the industry... the ones that can see the global context of meat” – that are sitting up and taking notice of the Bulls.
“The feedback so far is good... they can see lamb going down the branding path,” said Tom, who will offer 200 Hampshire Down rams for sale this year, including 100 at Lambpro’s on-property auction next month (where for the first time marbling estimated breeding values will be offered on all maternal sale rams).
“This is really about positioning where our clients want to be in five years’ time.”
On the tip of everyone’s lips.
MAKING CHANGE: Tom Bull, with his kids Hamish, 10, Hattie, 8, Eddie, 6, run Lambpro.
Tom, Hamish, Hattie and Eddie on the farm.