Wagyu busi­ness is rais­ing the ‘steaks’

Beef pro­duc­ers work from plate to pad­dock

Warwick Daily News - South West Queensland Rural Weekly - - News - James Wagstaff [email protected]­ral­weekly.com

RE­VERSE psy­chol­ogy is paving the way for­ward for one of Aus­tralia’s lead­ing wagyu beef op­er­a­tions.

An­thony and Chan­tal Win­ter, man­agers of the Ja­panese-owned Mac­quarie Wagyu on the Con­damine River flood­plain at Ley­burn in Queens­land’s South­ern Downs re­gion, don’t look at the busi­ness from a pad­dock-to-plate per­spec­tive. In fact, they do the op­po­site.

“For us it is work­ing back from the plate to the pad­dock,” said Chan­tal, who was re­cently elected the first woman pres­i­dent of the Aus­tralian Wagyu As­so­ci­a­tion.

“We turn it around so it is all about the con­sumers. If you haven’t got those con­sumers why are you do­ing what you do?”

This in­ten­tional fo­cus on the end-user means all breed­ing de­ci­sions re­volve around how a cow’s off­spring, hav­ing been fin­ished in the prop­erty’s 2900-head feed­lot, ul­ti­mately stack up on the din­ner plate.

“We can plug ev­ery cow into a com­puter pro­gram and we can look at her blood­lines, DNA, how many car­casses she has pro­duced and how good the car­casses have been,” said An­thony, adding the first three calves from any fe­male – ir­re­spec­tive of breed­ing – were fin­ished in the feed­lot to pro­vide cru­cial car­cass feed­back.

“From there we pick the cows we want as donor cows for em­bryos, the cows that are prob­a­bly the next rung down but are good enough to join to the top bulls and re­tain fe­males, and then our com­mer­cial pro­duc­tion cows.

“It’s not rocket science. We are us­ing our data to find the out­liers and breed from them.”

It’s a no-non­sense ap­proach that is pay­ing off in spades. Mac­quarie has po­si­tioned it­self at the top of the wagyu ge­net­ics tree. At the Aus­tralian Wagyu Con­fer­ence’s elite sale this year it sold a bull for $80,000 and two pack­ages of 10 se­men straws for an av­er­age of $70,000.

All the while its prod­uct con­tin­ues to win over judges in branded beef com­pe­ti­tions.

Not ones to rest on the lau­rels of their suc­cess, the Win­ters only have eyes for the fu­ture.

They are ex­cited by breed­ing and ge­netic tech­nol­ogy ad­vance­ments and are in the box seat to be able to al­ter their pro­grams to suit fu­ture mar­ket trends.

RICH HIS­TORY

MAC­QUARIE Wagyu is run on the prop­erty that once served as the Aus­tralian breed­ing head­quar­ters for the US-based King Ranch’s quar­ter horse and santa gertrudis op­er­a­tions.

Cov­er­ing about 8700ha, it com­prises pre­dom­i­nantly graz­ing coun­try but for

1300ha of farm­ing coun­try –

500ha of which is ir­ri­gated. The whole op­er­a­tion, which em­ploys nine full-time staff, is geared around the feed­lot with wheat and bar­ley grown over win­ter to sup­ply it. Chick­peas are also grown over win­ter with mung beans, sorghum, corn, cot­ton, soy beans grown as cash crops dur­ing sum­mer.

The Win­ters, who have man­aged the prop­erty since

2009 for the Ja­panese fam­ily which pur­chased it in the

mid-1990s, said about half the graz­ing land com­prised poor-qual­ity sandy, wat­tle and bull-oak coun­try with the bet­ter pad­docks of clay, briga­low and heavy soils.

Pad­dock sizes range from

20ha to 200ha and the prop­erty re­ceives about

625mm of rain a year in a mostly sum­mer pat­tern.

Last year it ex­pe­ri­enced a very or­di­nary win­ter be­fore things turned around – “but only in this im­me­di­ate area” – dur­ing sum­mer. But fol­low­ing a rea­son­able au­tumn “the tap turned off in May”.

“We nor­mally plant about

1500-2000 acres

(605-810ha) of win­ter crops and this year we have about

450 acres (182ha) and it’s all un­der the ir­ri­ga­tor,” An­thony said.

“We’ve got no dry­land at all. We were very lucky in that we have four and a half inches

(112mm) in Oc­to­ber which we were able to plant (sum­mer crops) on but all the hot weather since, we re­ally need an­other drink now.”

An­thony said the prop­erty had its own mi­cro­cli­mate – “it is not as hu­mid as the (Dar­ling) Downs and not as hot as out west” – but win­ter could be tough with 40-50 frosts this year. The prop­erty was hit by floods in 2010 and 2013 de­stroy­ing cot­ton and ready-to-har­vest sorghum crops in the process.

BREED TO SUC­CEED

ON the beef front, Mac­quarie joins 650 full-blood wagyu fe­males and 100 re­cip­i­ent cows, used to breed re­place­ment fe­males and some bulls. An­thony said they didn’t breed ac­cord­ing to one par­tic­u­lar line.

When he and Chan­tal first came to the prop­erty there was a lot of vari­a­tion in the size of the cows and, with it be­ing “very, very hard to breed size and mar­bling be­cause they are two dis­tinct lines”, they ini­tially fo­cused on growth.

“We have a very lim­ited ge­netic pool to work with. We’ve re­ally tried to keep di­ver­sity in our ge­net­ics and also keep size in the breed­ing herd,” Chan­tal said.

The Win­ters worked on the the­sis that it didn’t mat­ter how much mar­bling the car­casses had, if they were too small in size they wouldn’t have a mar­ket.

“We ba­si­cally spent seven years where all we did was con­cen­trate on get­ting a more uni­formed, medium-framed cow,” An­thony said.

“We were try­ing to do that while at least hold­ing on to our mar­ble score, which we did rea­son­ably suc­cess­fully.”

An­thony said last year was the first year they had in­fused a lot of mar­bling into the herd.

“We’ve re­ally tried to keep di­ver­sity in our ge­net­ics so that need to put a bit of size back into our herd we can,” Chan­tal said.

The Win­ters do a lot of work with ar­ti­fi­cial in­sem­i­na­tion but An­thony said their cover or back-up bulls were “very good so if we don’t get as much AI done we aren’t too con­cerned”.

“We also use our young up-and-coming sires as cover bulls so it gives us a chance to prog­eny test their off­spring against the proven per­form­ers,” he said.

An­thony said they had two dom­i­nant sires that they were us­ing be­cause of good car­cass re­sults.

Cows, which are se­lected on a com­bi­na­tion of struc­ture, car­cass and es­ti­mated breed­ing val­ues, run in two mob sizes, of ei­ther 150 or 50-80. He said one bull would eas­ily cover 100 cows but they didn’t use sin­gle-sire mat­ings for the risk of a bull get­ting sick.

“At two per cent (two bulls per 100 cows) you can just open the gate, put them in and for­get about it. They will get you 100 cows in calf no wor­ries,” An­thony said.

Preg­nancy rates av­er­age 97 per cent but this year, given the tough sea­son, it was 93 per cent. The cows calve from July to early Septem­ber and, depend­ing on the sea­son, calves are weaned any­where from March to May.

Chan­tal said they aimed to calve in the cooler months to re­duce is­sues with scours.

The cat­tle are man­aged in broad ge­netic lines with the Win­ters con­scious of look­ing af­ter the coun­try through pas­ture im­prove­ment and ro­ta­tional graz­ing. Chan­tal said they didn’t fol­low any strict rule when it came to the tim­ing of ro­ta­tional graz­ing in­stead re­ly­ing on an assess­ment of pas­tures and ma­nure.

FEED FRENZY

THE calves graze grass, and have ac­cess to sup­ple­men­tary feed un­til they en­ter the feed­lot at 15-20 months of age or 350-400kg.

An­thony said the feed­lot was li­censed for 2900 head but its phys­i­cal ca­pac­ity was about 2200. About 600-900 of these are Mac­quarie Wagyu and the bal­ance are cus­tom-fed an­i­mals (cur­rently there are about 1200).

Full-blood wagyu are fed for about 500 days. With the re­cip­i­ent herd An­gus, there are also F1 steers and heifers to come through the sys­tem too. They are fed for 400 days, as are the pre­dom­i­nantly cross­bred cus­tom-fed an­i­mals which en­ter at 350-400kg.

The partly-shaded feed pens mea­sure 55m by 30m and house a max­i­mum 125 cat­tle.

“The cat­tle are just bul­let proof with their im­mune sys­tem when they get in here – they have no stress – there isn’t this con­stant turnover of cat­tle coming in or out (com­pared to shorter-fed op­er­a­tions),” An­thony said.

“We weigh ours on the way in, at about 150-200 days and the­o­ret­i­cally they get weighed once on the way out – the rest of the time they stay in their lit­tle bed­room and never move.”

The cat­tle are fed about

12.5kg of feed a day – all ra­tions are dry rolled and the grain com­po­nent usu­ally com­prises two thirds wheat and a third bar­ley.

In an av­er­age year, the farm can pro­duce eight months of wheat and bar­ley sup­plies with dry­land yields about four tonnes/ha and ir­ri­gated crops five tonnes/ha.

How­ever, with bar­ley “im­pos­si­ble to get and if you can get it is too dear” the cat­tle are cur­rently on a ra­tion of 69 per cent wheat as well as straw, pro­tein meals and sup­ple­ments, which con­tain minerals and ru­men mod­i­fiers, and veg­etable oil “to add a bit of en­ergy but also for flavour and smell”.

An­thony said straw prices were the thing hurt­ing lot feed­ers at the mo­ment.

“We are lucky in that we’ve still had two years’ worth of straw baled in the pad­dock,” he said. “And we are for­tu­nate in that, be­cause we’ve got the area, we can go and lock 200 acres (81ha) up and bale it for straw.

“The feed­lots that are just a feed­lot with 200 acres (81ha) of cul­ti­va­tion next door have got to im­port it, and they are pay­ing over $300 a tonne for straw now whereas tra­di­tion­ally they’d be pay­ing

$80-$100. Straw can be 10-16 per cent of a wagyu ra­tion so if you triple it in price, it is not good for your mar­gins.”

❝com­puter

We can plug ev­ery cow into a pro­gram and we can look at her blood­lines, DNA, how many car­casses she has pro­duced and how good the car­casses have been.

— An­thony Win­ter

WEIGHT AND SEE

AN­THONY said they weren’t look­ing for ex­treme weight gains in the feed­lot.

“We are not try­ing to feed them 18kg and get 2.5kg weight gain,” An­thony said.

“We are try­ing to get them to eat around that 12-12.5kg and ideally we’d like 1kg a day (weight gain) but in re­al­ity we prob­a­bly av­er­age about 0.9kg.

“And if you think about it, if you’re go­ing to feed 400-500 days, you can’t put 1kg a day on or you’ll breed ele­phants.”

Cat­tle are turned off once a month to the Cassino RSM Pro­cess­ing works at Casino in north­ern NSW.

Work­ing on car­cass weights of about 460kg, the Mac­quarie cat­tle pro­duce more than 250 tonnes of prod­uct an­nu­ally.

When it comes to mar­bling, An­thony said “re­ally at the mo­ment we have to av­er­age bet­ter than 7.5 or we are not go­ing to make money... which we are”.

The beef is mar­keted by Di­rect Meat Com­pany with high-end prod­uct re­ceiv­ing a Mac­quarie Wagyu logo.

Most is ex­ported with over­seas cus­tomers par­tic­u­larly in­ter­ested in the story at­tached to their meat.

“We’ll have cus­tomers that one day may re­quest proof that it is a full-blood wagyu piece of meat,” An­thony said.

“They can trace that back through bar code, into the box, back to the meat­works, back to the NLIS (Na­tional Live­stock Iden­ti­fi­ca­tion Sys­tem) and we can go and tell them what pad­dock it was born in.

“That is the story and at that high end con­sumers want the story.”

And what a suc­cess story theirs is to tell.

PHO­TOS: CON­TRIB­UTED / JAMES WAGSTAFF

PLATE TO PAD­DOCK: An­thony and Chan­tal Win­ter of Mac­quarie Wagyu at Ley­burn, south of Toowoomba.

Mac­quarie has gone from 23 full-blood wagyu heifers in 1999 to 650 full-blood wagyu breed­ers in 2018.

Mac­quarie has 650 full-blood wagyu breed­ers run over 8700 hectares.

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