Quest for best

Breeder aims to create Aus­tralia’s tasti­est lamb to bol­ster re­turns

The Northern Star - Northern New South Wales Rural Weekly - - FRONT PAGE - JAMES WAGSTAFF

TASTY: New South Wales farmer Tom Bull says con­trol­ling ge­net­ics will create bet­ter tast­ing meat. His story:

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.”


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.

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.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.