FROM steaks that command $1200 a kilogram in elite establishments to decades of performance breeding that has made it the epicentre of outstanding Wagyu genetics outside of Japan, South Australia’s Mayura Station has the wow factor on so many levels.
It’s sustainable, vertically-integrated and at the forefront of many beef industry innovations - genomics and poll breeding to name just two.
In two short decades, the DeBruins have taken Mayura from days of walking the streets with samples in an esky explaining to chefs that Wagyu is beef, not ostrich or another alternative protein, to a business that markets 50,000 kilograms of premium retail beef each month, 70 per cent of it overseas.
Yet at the heart of things is a strategically designed production system where very precise figures can be put on the profitability boosts delivered via genetic improvement.
Profitability, after all, is the number one goal, says managing director Scott DeBruin.
In a session at this year’s Australian Wagyu Association conference, held in Mackay in May, Mr DeBruin shared some of Mayura’s secrets to breeding and feeding for top results.
“We have made a transition in our business from being livestock producers to selling meat,” he said.
“All our cattle now leave in a box. We’ve taken full control.”
Based on SA’s Limestone coast near Millicent, some of Australia’s best farming country, Mayura has a number of specialist divisions including cropping and fodder production, breeding, backgrounding, grainfeeding and international beef marketing.
A restaurant has also been built on the farm, something Mr DeBruin described as “a wonderful outlet that allows us to bring customers onto the farm, showcase different cuts of meat and teach chefs, importers and distributors what Mayura Wagyu is all about.”
Established in 1998 with the importation of some of Australia’s first live 100 per cent Wagyu fullblood cattle, Mayura branded boxed beef was launched in 2000 and the DeBruins began marketing direct to restaurants in SA.
“Back then it was a challenge for a restaurant to have a main course over $30 on the menu - this venture has required some big shifts in the norm,” Mr DeBruin said.
Exporting started in 2004 and Mayura takes no ‘scattergun’ approach. Destination markets are precisely targeted - China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore and Dubai - and longterm stable distribution partners established.
“Our partners invest for growth in future demand, we invest in each other,” Mr DeBruin said.
Mayura’s three labels of grainfed beef, the flagship being the Signature Series, have an average Ausmeat marble score of 8.5.
The business caters to the food service sector, including Michelin Star restaurants, along with Asian-style barbecuing and casual dining.
“When you are selling a whole carcase it’s not all prime steak cuts - there is a lot of hamburger meat also and you must have an outlet for it to retain profitability,” Mr DeBruin said.
“The challenge is to deliver an experience that is true Wagyu and still be able to sell in that casual dining environment.”
Back to the production side, and with profitability firmly in mind, a system was designed with the specific objectives of reducing age-at-slaughter to 24 to 26 months without losses to superior carcass quality.
“When we started, we were slaughtering at 36 to 40 months of age but we quickly realised we couldn’t sustain holding stock on our books for that long,” Mr DeBruin said.
“We started early weaning, at six months, and made improvements in backgrounding nutrition - the introduction of silages was very important.”
But genetic improvement has been the big driver of profitability, and key to that has been the ability to measure.
Measure what you have
Annually, 3000 head of fullblood cows are artificially inseminated to the highest quality Wagyu Sires.
“To supply into our branded beef products we have spring and autumn joinings and subsequent calving,” Mr DeBruin said.
“This allows for the supply of quality calves all year.”
To progress an elite sire program, retain traceability and understand which genetics to move forward with, all calves are tagged at birth, with parentage and birth weight recorded.
DNA is collected for verification.
“The really important thing when breeding Wagyu is to measure what you have, so you’re not talking coat colour and relying on phenotypical assesement but rather objective measurable parameters.”
The information collected includes birth weights, weaning weight – collected at a consistent age regardless of season - and eight weekly weighing from weaning to slaughter to track the growth and which genetic combinations are working.
“Once in the chiller, we do Ausmeat chiller assessment for hot standard carcase weight, dentition, PH fat, marble score, eye muscle area and rib fat,” Mr DeBruin said.
“We’ve also been doing independent digital camera assessment for marbling percentage and fineness.”
The data has to be credible to be usable, he said.
More than 4500 head of fullblood carcasses have been analysed over the past five years.
In that time, improvement to the cow herd alone, as a result of genetic selection has included increased HSCW by 7.1pc, increased rib eye area by 7.4pc, increased marble score by 17pc and reduced age of slaughter by 24pc.
Unlocking the value in eye muscle area is critical to improving the overall value of a carcase, Mr DeBruin believes.
“Even if you’re selling livestock, it passes on down the value chain,” he said.
“Loin weights from all our caracasses have increased by 5.5kg/head over the past five years.
“That has added over $550 per head in value - all again via genetic selection.”
Where to next?
With Hammond Farms in Tasmania and Queensland’s Hamblin family, Mayura has set up Poll Wagyu Australia.
“One of the challenges when transitioning from horned cattle has been the concern about loss of traits so we were prepared to put our best sires into this,” Mr DeBruin said.
“We’re using the power of commercial production carcase data to put behind poll Wagyu cattle.”