FROM improved pastures guaranteeing a rising plane of nutrition to highly targeted genetic selection, a focus on temperament and an overhaul of handling practices, NSW beef operation “Killandayle” has honed in on eating quality to secure premiums.
The pasture-fed breeding and fattening operation near Holbrook, owned by Oliver Killalea and run in partnership with his son Tony and daughter in law Marg, was among the country’s first to sign up for the meat eating quality program Meat Standards Australia (MSA) 20 years ago.
When the Killaleas identified dark cutting as a key issue affecting their compliance earlier this decade, they embarked on a comprehensive investigation of the on-farm factors that could be adjusted.
The resulting strategies have taken them from a situation where 15 per cent of carcasses were downgraded due to high pH to just over 1pc.
Today, their MSA index - the measure of predicted eating quality and carcase value - sits at 62.05, placing “Killandayle” in the top ten per cent of NSW producers.
The 366 hectares of red and brown soil country and creek flats at “Killandayle”, with an annual rainfall of 825mm, backgrounds 500 steers for the feeder market annually, and runs a breeding herd of 120 Angus Shorthorn cross.
Cattle are purchased in April in big lines, mostly online, at 280 to 300kg and turned around by December/January to 550kg.
Oliver Killalea said he registered for MSA when it was launched because he could see the value in striving to deliver a product to the consumer that met their desires, and he could also see production benefits for the farmer.
MSA-graded cattle offered a far more stable price from the get go and always a premium, he said.
When they realised the potential to lift returns by addressing downgrades due to dark cutting, the Killaleas set out to determine what could be done on farm - and their success is today being held up by industry leaders as the way forward for others.
“We would be sending steers off to Yanco and Wagga to be killed and didn’t understand why we were getting downgraded due to dark cutters,” Mr Killalea said.
“So we looked closely at the things the science was indicating could make a difference.”
The first move was pasture improvement to provide high levels of nutrition, so trade steers grow, fatten and finish within the feed plane window of the property and the district.
Phalaris, clovers and perennial ryegrass has been planted in a gradual improvement program, with oats and annual ryegrass supplementing winter requirements.
An extensive fertilising program has also been implemented.
At the same time, the producers turned their attention to cattle temperament - checking the semen sire’s docility index and culling any cows exhibiting high stress and poor or dangerous temperament.
Selecting for high 400 day growth means steer calves finish earlier, delivering a positive influence on the MSA ossification measure.
“We are now refining selection for intramuscular fat traits for home bred steers,” Marg Killalea said.
“By using artificial insemination on the breeding herd, plus a one cycle back up bull, it means steers are born within a four to six week period, resulting in an even run of home bred steers which slot into the grass fed fattening enterprise.
“We select our trade steers for breeding and carcass attributes to meet grass fed market specs and high MSA index score.”
Meanwhile, regular handling, with the aim of reducing susceptibility to stress, has become entrenched and yard familiarisation at weaning is a priority together with commitment to quality assurance programs and protocols.
Mr Killalea said the MSA premium had continually grown during his two decades with the program but there had been other production benefits from the new strategies, including the ability of the property to turn off more kilograms of beef and improved welfare outcomes, including fewer animal health issues.
He believes targeting eating quality will be critical to the future of the Australian beef producer.
“Initially, I felt it important but today I feel it is even more important,” he said.
“With the price of beef today, people must have quality and this is the way to guarantee that.
“There is a lot more competition for beef today than there was 20 years ago - just today I hear on the radio the chicken market is outpacing us - so we have to continually improve.”