Winter wonder as Wagyu business raises steaks

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.

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Anthony and Chantal Winter are contenders for The Weekly Times Coles 2018 Farmer of the Year.  Image courtesy of James Wagstaff.

“We can plug every cow into a computer program and we can look at her bloodlines, DNA, how many carcases she has produced and how good the carcases have been,” said Anthony, adding the first three calves from any female — irrespective of breeding — were finished in the feedlot to provide crucial carcase 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, soybeans 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 bulloak 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 sizeand 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 carcases 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 uninformed, 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 backup 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 carcase results. Cows, which are selected on a combination of structure, carcase 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 2 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 of 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).

Fullblood 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 bulletproof 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.”

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 Casino RSM Processing works at Casino in northern NSW. Working on carcase 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 are 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 fullblood 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.

The Weekly Times Coles 2018 Farmer of the Year

Anthony and Chantal Winter are contenders for The Weekly Times Coles 2018 Farmer of the Year. Farmers who appear in The Weekly Times, theweeklytimes.com.au and FARM are eligible to win one of six categories and, ultimately, be crowned our Farmer of the Year. Category winners will win $5000 in prizes, with the 2018 Farmer of the Year receiving $10,000 cash.

 

The Weekly Times |  By James Wagstaff