BIG data is being fed back into the breeding decision-making process at progressive Queensland beef operation Strathdale Wagyu to secure a faster pace of genetic improvement and ultimately produce a carcase ‘to order’.
Darren and Melanie Hamblin, and their four children Sarah, Lucy, Alice and Will, run 6000 head of Wagyu and Wagyu-cross cattle over 18200 hectares in a breeding, backgrounding and feedlot enterprise.
Properties range from coastal ranges near Sarina in North Queensland and brigalow fattening country near Middlemount to the Darling Downs.
European Union-accredited steers are finished for 450 days in the Hamblin’s own Southern Queensland feedlots, processed after 450 days on feed averaging 430 to 470 kilograms carcase weight generally by two-and-a-half to three years, and sold to exporters who market throughout the world.
The crossbreeding component of the operation, which uses Shorthorns, has been dubbed ‘Shagyus’.
Extensive artificial breeding and intense data collection, which relies on retaining ownership through the supply chain in order to access full carcase feedback information, is the backbone of the business.
And 20 years of dedication to the process is now starting to pay big dividends in terms of allowing the Hamblins to use that analysed data to select the right genetics to breed the carcases they want.
How it works
More than 20,000 animals, including those sold, are on the Strathdale database, with just over 6000 presently active.
From the day an animal is born, it is registered on the database.
Managers at each property collect the data and input it at purpose-built computer stations beside crushes at every property.
Computers are synchronised to an internet database.
Every procedure, and all costs, are recorded: joinings, pregnancies, weights all through the animal’s life, vaccinations right down to batch numbers, birth dates, progeny and carcase details.
“It’s easy to collect and once you get yourself into that rhythm it’s just part of life,” Mr Hamblin said.
“Because we own the steers right through until the beef is sold, we can get clear processing data flow.
“A lot of producers are starving for carcase information because they don’t have access to the processed animal, someone else owns it by that stage.”
“There are also particular players in the industry who will to buy stores from you and partner with you in ensuring the carcase data is fed back to you. This is a win for both parties in the longer term.”
All that data can then be analysed to provide a more evidence-based foundation for selecting genetics to breed the carcases the Hamblins want.
“It allows me to select which cows to AI and which cows to use as recipients, knowing that I can predict much better which combinations of genetics will be best for what I want to do,” Mr Hamblin said.
He grades two ways: the first by direct carcase feedback involving a score based on data from the carcases of all an animal’s progeny and the second, for those that haven’t had progeny (steers and cows who had heifers), is a a score derived from the animal’s parents.
So the entire female herd is listed against progeny score.
“Last year I needed more recips for some work I’m doing with polled purebred Wagyu and we wanted to put 600 embryos in,” Mr Hamblin explained.
“I had to put embryos in between a third and half of my breeders so I had to lift the score.
“If, on the other hand, I need to do more AI, I lower the score.”
On the bull side, Mr Hamblin has set up a ‘level playing field’ system for testing animals.
“When we started with Wagyu in 2000 I was worried the genetic pool would dry up. I needed to prove up new future sires,” he said.
“Eight years ago I bought the best bulls I could find and joined them to the herd of 1200 Shorthorn and Shorthorn crosses as a base.
“This enabled a fair comparison between sires and I have 3500 carcases to verify the best bulls.”
He now has an excellent basis for selecting the right bulls.
“At the same time I was able to bring in external other traits like frame size, polling and milk,” Mr Hamblin said.
While there has been a good deal of ‘trialling and experimenting’ involved, Mr Hamblin said big data has added up to a faster pace of genetic improvement.
“To do data collection on such a large scale has meant we’ve had to partner with people along the supply chain that I can get data from,” he said.
“We all have to work together but it can be very fruitful.
“The time scale is also such that it is four years before you get carcase data, in which time you’ve produced a lot of heifers and steers.
“We are now at the pointy end of the genetic gain.
“It’s about taking the guesswork out of beef production and basically, if I did not do this, I would have been left behind.”