Jerky proves to be silver lining for struggling property
The Cameron family had a stroke of genius which saved their Queensland farm
IT WAS a double whammy.
The drought in Queensland was kicking in and live cattle exports in northern Australia had been shut down.
Almost overnight the value of Doug and Rachelle Cameron’s 1300 head of brangus–charolais cattle plummeted by about $1 million.
“It happened in about a six-month period,” Doug recalled of his annus horribilis about four years ago.
“When the cattle market shut, stock were sent south and saturated the market, taking a cow from $850 to $75 after costs.
“To scrape through I was working nine months away from home as a machinery contractor but, with the drought, I couldn’t work as I had to keep the cattle alive.
“One day the bank manager called to ask about the interest payments and I just hit the wall.”
What happened next to the Camerons – and their 13,700ha property in the Augathella region of southwest Queensland – was either a stroke of genius, or could be described as a knee-jerk reaction.
“I like to experiment in the kitchen and was making jerky at home and I’d gone into a roadhouse where I saw they were selling jerky for $5 a packet,” the 39-year-old said.
“I thought, geez, surely I could get more than 10 packets of jerky out of a cow and make more than what I was getting.”
Four years on, Nive Beef Jerky is the silver lining to that dark period.
“It ticks a lot of boxes for us. Did I realise how much work was involved in starting a business like this? No. Do I see it as a positive for the farm? Most certainly, yes.”
WHILE the jerky business is growing by about 20% per annum, it remains a small fraction of the overall farming enterprise.
About 40 head of grass-fed cattle a year – or about four a month – are processed, mainly steers above the 550kg bracket.
“They’re out of spec and worth less, and may not otherwise have a market but, by the time we make the jerky, they’re worth more. The jerky means we clean up cattle that wouldn’t have a home.”
They are taken by Doug in a trailer to Augathella, butchered into strips and placed in cryovac bags.
Doug sells the fatty trim – which can’t be made into jerky – to a Roma butcher, before then travelling to Toowoomba to a butcher run by the social enterprise Endeavour Foundation, a round trip that takes him 16 hours.
The foundation takes two days to marinate, then dry the meat – an eight-hour process that loses two-thirds of the meat’s original weight – before packaging it and distributing it.
Because jerky can be a high-risk food, Doug sends a sample from each batch to a lab to be tested, including for water content and such issues as e.coli, salmonella and microbe count.
Doug said the business had hit its strides this year, thanks to the employment of a marketing manager in January, which had seen the number of retail outlets grow from 34 retailers in the past
❝ I thought, geez surely I could get more than 10 packets of jerky out of a cow and make more than what I was getting.
— Doug Cameron
three years to 120 last year, mainly in NSW and Queensland, with a forecast growth of 300 next year; alongside online retail sales.
THE jerky is sold in 50g packets in four flavours all created by Doug – roasted chilli, Thai fusion, heated garlic, and the original which is inspired by his grandmother’s roast beef gravy recipe.
“In the first three years we’ve sold 40,000 packets but, as I’ve learnt, the first three years of a new business is hell and the fourth year is when you start cracking it.”
Doug and Rachelle – both raised on large cattle properties – moved to the 13,700ha farm in the Augathella region in 2004, with the property part of the historic Nive Downs cattle run.
The father of three said pre-drought, the carrying
capacity of the farm was 1300 head but, after five years of drought, they now stocked 880 cows and 200 steers, with further destocking expected.
The average annual rainfall of 530mm is well under half, with one of the Camerons’ three weather stations measuring 176mm rainfall to November 2018.
This season i Doug said no rain had fallen to allow hay to normal summer pasture growth to carry cattle through the winter months, with pastures normally allowing three grazing rotations now accommodating just one.
In a normal year they would only buy supplementary feed through winter but now they use high energy, high protein dry lick supplements year-round.
The soil ranges from black to red loam and buffel grass, with four sub-artesian bores supplying water needs.
THE foundation genetics for the herd came from a brahman stud dispersal sale in Longreach.
Brahman cows are crossed with angus bulls to create an F1 demonstrating high fertility, high growth rates and high intramuscular fat.
Brangus are then crossed with charolais for further hybrid vigour, combining the charolais muscle and growth, with the fat transferred from F1 progeny.
Previously the Camerons have had bulls with cows year-round but, in the past year, have joined for four months from November through to February.
Weaners are sold at Roma saleyards, while steers are sold to feedlots at about 500kg liveweight, or up to 21 months of age.
Doug said creating Nive Beef Jerky had had many advantages, one of the best aspects of which was the product development.
“From having the idea to bringing it to fruition was a huge task, finding a place to make it with a commercial kitchen, creating a website, pricing, delivery, food safety and I never thought I’d have to understand barcodes.”
NEW VENTURE: Beef jerky producer Doug Cameron, from Augathella, at the Regional Food Festival in Southbank with some of his beef products.
FARMING FAMILY: Doug Cameron, left, with daughters Grace and Ella, wife Rachelle and son Stirling.