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Meating the Market - Feedlot scores high with Holstein herds

The Aussie Holstein Beef brand is tackling the animal welfare issue head-on through its unique beef supply chain opportunity. The breed’s concentrated genetic pool combined with a whole-of-life production programme is producing quality beef outcomes.

It’s 7am on a Wednesday at Ashleigh Park Feedlot and Greg Schuller swiftly moves around the drafting yards to load cattle into a livestock truck set for abattoirs before the beef is exported to China. Feedlot’s General Manager, Dallas Schuller is handed a feeding chart by nutritionist Simone Holt and Grace Freeman from Nutrition Services Associated showing key figures monitored, while fellow Director and Business Development Manager Richard Boyd explains these Australian-first operations at the Culcairn-site in southern NSW, to visiting Chinese traders from Henry Huang, Kenneth Shao and Michael Li from J.O.C. Great Wall Australia, who have a long-standing agreement to buy the beef. Richard makes a quick adjustment of the specially engineered retractable roofing on one of the fully covered sheds at the facility (which is a unique design to the Australian beef industry) and continues walking through the concrete laneways between the structures as he explains the key traits of the Holstein breeds and how important genetics and good quality grains and feed is the biggest influence over the consistent high performance of these dairy steers. It’s not long before the latch is locked closed on the Henty-based Doig’s Transport prime mover, and the last of the 95 long-fed steers are headed for NCMC at Casino in northern NSW. Dallas and his son Greg, who is livestock manager, move over to the specialised feeding pens as the grain fed rations are delivered into the bunks for “breakfast time” and continue discussions on the cattle’s growth according to the current feeding schedule. Whilst only part of the feedlot cattle might be traditional dairy breeds of cattle where typical sunrise starts are the norm, the early morning action at the site is certainly impressive such a long time before any hints of the morning ‘smoko’ and coffee is brewed. Richard Boyd’s passion for the cattle industry and producing high quality long-fed cattle is evident as he sits in the feedlot office to give me a comprehensive insight into the unique beef supply chain opportunity that has formed the basis for the development of the Aussie Holstein Beef operation. From what began as Wagyu and Holstein programmes developed by Shuzo Manno with his father, who started the feedlot in the late 1980s, with proven feedlotting principles from Japan developed over more than four decades, and suited to domestic and international markets, has now grown into a centre of industry leading animal welfare standards facilitating optimum performance and quality. “When the Manno family first came to Australia in 1989, they were looking for a grain-fed beef animal that could produce a product that could compete at a level almost the same as a Wagyu. We worked with the Manno family feeding Holsteins in the early 1990s and then a few years ago we predicted that the Wagyu market was going to be somewhat flooded with a lower quality product, so we took different directions and started breeding a ‘waghorn’ animal (a Wagyu with a Shorthorn) and then the way the market was continuing, Dallas and I began to develop Aussie Holstein Beef, as we really needed an animal we could buy at a reasonable price,” Richard explains. Richard grew up in a cattle breeding family in southern NSW and he has gone on to have responsibility in various private and public enterprises, and especially has a thorough knowledge of the supply chain and service provision systems. In his role with the feedlot and as Director for almost 30 years, along with Dallas, he has overseen major expansions and developments of the facility, and he has lead the development of branded beef and long-fed feeding programs with shorthorns. Dallas also came to Ashleigh Park Feedlot in 1989, having experienced 15 years on dryland and irrigation properties and four years overseas in oil exploration in China. Since growing up on Ashleigh Park, Dallas’s son Greg is now Livestock Manager and has embarked on developing a leading stud breeding cattle program with shorthorns, while assisting Dallas manage the day-to-day operations at Ashleigh Park.

It is estimated that nationally, approximately 20 to 25 per cent of the milking herd of cattle is replaced annually, therefore thousands are not required as replacements. Whilst a percentage are exported depending on global demand, the remainder provides a unique domestic opportunity to build on the Holstein beef supply chain. “The animal welfare situation with bobby calves and steer calves in the dairy cattle industry (unwanted male calves sent to slaughter in their first week of life) is a nightmare, so what we’ve effectively done is put a lot of value back into steer calves, essentially doubling the value of the calf,” Richard says. “Our own whole of life programme modelled on the Wagyu programmes in Japan is the key to us achieving consistency and meat quality. “We have discovered that there are three aspects to the Holsteins that are really good – we can achieve good fat colour and meat colour and good presentation in a retail shop, and they can marble well which gives them what we believe is a unique taste and texture,” Richard explains. “The surprising thing to us is that people here are in disbelief that dairy beef can marble as high as a 5, 6, 7 score… What you’ve got to appreciate is that the international performance and production history, combined with domestic trials, is extensive. In America, 25 per cent of cattle in feedlots are Holsteins and 35 per cent of the beef consumed there is Holstein beef, so dairy beef is not an unproven product in human consumption.” There have been promising results from the whole of life programme with average daily weight gains equal to or better than international competitors in China, Japan and the United States, on a similar feeding program. The feedlot has been carefully designed to ensure the highest standards of animal welfare and efficiency of operation. The covered design of the feedlot provides the capacity to successfully feed breeds that require a more controlled environment – including Wagyus and Holsteins – and with less dust generated, there are minimal animal health issues. The current licensed capacity of the facility which includes 12 holding yards is 3,000 SCU. “It’s interesting, if you look at the dairy industry, the high performing operations are all covered barn-style dairies and we have found these cattle really need monitoring under a more regulated system in which climate and wind conditions are controlled. “We have been buying the cattle off selected farmers from the eastern states and we’ve now reached a point where we’ve got a handle on the right genetics from dairy farms and we know what we need to feed them. We initially started buying cattle out of the paddock at certain weights but we are now focused on taking the calves younger and working through the finished product over 350 days at our grower feedlot at Echuca in Victoria and finishing them here at Ashleigh Park. “To get the grade quality we require, we need to be competing with Wagyu which dominates the top 10 to 20 per cent of the market, then Angus cattle with a marble score of 3 to 4, and we’re trying to get the 5 or 6 area, which we’ve been able to achieve, but consistency is really around having the facility like Ashleigh Park with long fed options.Dallas believes the benefits of the Ashleigh Park location is its access to commodities in very sound cropping farmland. “We’ve got families supplying us with grain who have been doing so for several years,” Dallas says.

“We like to do as much locally as possible. The quality of feed going into the animal is really important, we find that 60 per cent of the value of the animal goes into feed, so we need the quality of straw and grain and for it to be very accessible. We’ve had a lot of good community support over the years which gave us the confidence to expand, we have good staff and the opportunity to specialise in intensive agriculture in the community has been there. We hope to incorporate the solar powered roofing system now which will be operated from an app, the big investment we’ll make over the next 12 to 18 months will be in software and connectivity around the feedlot, linking tractors, water supply and the solar system.”

Richard believes everyone involved, from dairy farmers to the feedlotters, can have a win out of the supply chain with the interest that has been generated for the industry. He says that dairy farmers are now contacting him every day to sell calves.

“I think the dairy industry is really going to be forced into finding outcomes for male calves. Aussie Holstein Beef and the dairy industry and milk processors could be the big winners out of this, we’ve got to do something with the male calves,” he says.

“This really is an Australian first and I think we are going to see quite good growth over the next 12 to 18 months. It’s different, it’s new, so I believe that it’s going to have a level of acceptance in the marketplace which will push the numbers and demand up a little bit, but it’s really about us getting consistency in our outcomes and the key and what sets us apart is really nutrition and whole of life feeding, but it’s also about the breeding of selected animals.”

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