Gordon Shaw, wife Leanne Wheaton, his brother Jim and sister Cathy have a 1600 hectare property in the Wantagong Valley, Holbrook, NSW. But it’s the smaller block, which is the key to their Grass Roots Beef business, through which meat is sold online or at local farmers markets.
Cattle are brought from Holbrook, to the property in a small truck, owned by the Shaws. “They’re on the way to the abattoirs, so it’s no extra cost to us,” Mr Shaw said. The animals were held at Jindera for four to six weeks, before being turned off. “Our animals at Holbrook tend to be in bigger paddocks. They see people buzzing around, but don’t have this closer contact. For us to produce the best beef we can. we want animals to be really quiet.”
Jindera allowed for the cattle to be desensitised to people and calmed down – “because the real key to good meat is that low stress type animal.”
At Holbrook, the Shaws run 500 Hereford breeders and several thousand Merino and cross bred sheep. The farm has been in the family since the 1960’s. The original bloodlines were Ardno and South Boorooke Herefords, with the property eventually selling its own bulls under the Lark Rise name. More recently the farm had used Dunoon bloodlines.
The initial aim was to get away from the “slightly pampered, overfed cattle, Mr Shaw said. “We were looking for robust types of doers, which could perform well in the paddock and wouldn’t break down, so they had to have larger frames but still with good growth traits.”
The other key traits were good formation and temperament.
The property currently had a spring calving pattern, joining at two per cent, around November but Ms Wheaton said that was likely to change. “Because of our need for cattle for the Grass Roots business, because it’s expanding, we are finding it difficult just to have spring calving cattle,” she said.
With a calving percentage of 95pc, the young animals were weaned at six months. “Our approach is to have a very compressed calving period – we do put pressure on the heifers and we cull fairly heavily for fertility,” Mr Shaw said. Heifers were joined as yearlings to calve down at two but switching programs would probably mean joining at 18 months.
Ms Wheaton said about 20pc of the cattle, turned off from Wantagong were sold through under the Grass Roots label. “Demand has certainly increased dramatically in the last year, through the website, and we have been selling a bit of meat to restaurants and higher quality pubs.”
Demand has certainly increased dramatically in the last year, through the website, and we have been selling a bit of meat to restaurants and higher quality pubs.
“That has its own challenges. Restaurants say they’ll take all our eye fillets and we need six a week, but where’s the rest of the animal going to go?”
Ms Wheaton said Grass Roots liked to provide a diversity of cuts. “We get a butcher to cut the carcasses up for us so we can have things like hangar, things you can’t get anywhere else,” Mr Shaw said. “Once people are happy and confident with us, they can ask us and we can satisfy those requests a regular butcher would find hard to fulfil.”
Grass fed beef marketing was definitely a niche. “But you can tell the growth is there, because Coles have their own grass fed certification and there is also the Pasturefed Cattle Assurance System (PCAS),” Mr Shaw said. “There are an increasing number of people wanting to know where their food is coming from, how the animals have been treated and they want to know it’s local.”
When not being sold under the Grass Roots label, cattle went through the saleyards, over the hooks or through Auctions Plus.
“We tend to turn them off at about 16 months, when they will be about the 400 kilogram mark,” Mr Shaw said. “We don’t have a fat score – it’s visual appreciation and matching up with what the markets are doing, at that time.”
A regular program of pasture innovation was a key “irrespective of whether we are selling the beef or selling the live animal.” The stocking rate at Holbrook was held at three dry sheep equivalent (DSE) per hectare. Pastures, made up of largely phalaris, rye and clover, was soil tested annually, receiving about 80-100 tonnes of lime per year, as well as 200kg of single superphosphate, over a third of the property. At Holbrook, Ms Wheaton said there were large areas of bush and some native pastures, as well as a creek frontage.
“A lot of people don’t have that, so it’s a good marketing tool, as well.”