Quest for best
Breeder aims to create Australia’s tastiest lamb to bolster returns
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.”
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.
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.