Two Queensland feedlots – one built in the first wave of industry development back in the 1970s, and the other representing the ‘latest generation’ in design and construction – shared the major honours in the Feedlot of the Year awards presented during last week’s BeefEx industry conference.
The Camm family’s Wonga Plains feedlot near Dalby on the Darling Downs earned the Feedlot of the Year crown for lots less than 10,000 head in capacity, while JBS Australia’s Beef City site near Toowoomba secured the title for operations above 10,000 head.
The Feedlot of the Year competition, now in its 22nd year, involve a rigorous and independent judging process administered through AusMeat, with points allocated across a number of sub-categories including quality assurance and product integrity, animal welfare, environment and corporate responsibility.
For the first time, the awards process also recognised excellence across the four sub-categories.
In the over 10,000 head category, sub-category winners included Nippon Meat Packers Australia’s Whyalla feedlot near Texas (Animal Welfare and Environment category winners); Teys Australia’s Jindalee feedlot (corporate responsibility); and Beef City (Quality Assurance and Product Integrity).
In the under 10,000 head category, Mort and Co’s Gunnee feedlot claimed the Animal Welfare section; Andrew and Tess Herbert’s Gundamain feedlot the Environment and Corporate Responsibility divisions; and Wonga Plains the Quality Assurance and Product Integrity divisions.
Consistency across all four sub-categories was the hallmark which delivered the divisional wins for Beef City and Wonga Plains.
Although the Camm family has been feeding small numbers of cattle at the Wonga Plains site since 1975, the business underwent a major upgrade and expansion in 2007, moving from 4000 to 7000 head capacity. Grain processing was upgraded at the same time with the installation of a steam flaking mill, greatly improving grain utilisation.
Operations today are a combination of trade and export grainfed programs mostly based on company-bred cattle from the Camm family’s extensive North Queensland breeding operations, and a custom-feeding business based on Wagyu cattle.
By focusing on just three core groups of feeder cattle, Wonga Plains has been able to refine its cattle management program to more effectively target these categories.
About 70 percent of cattle transitioning through the feedlot are company-owned and bred, which are part of a vertically integrated ‘conception to consumption’ approach.
The second production group are cattle purchased and fed by Bottle Tree Feeders – a sister company controlled by the Camm Ag Group. These cattle are purchased according to market needs – topping-up numbers if the company-bred cattle fall short for a particular feeding requirement.
Cattle are sourced direct from the paddock, often from suppliers of known performance, and saleyards cattle are avoided at all costs to minimise the health issues arising from multi-sourced feeder cattle.
As a result, respiratory problems are very low, by industry standards. Mortalities across the yard are very low by industry standards, averaging below 0.3pc. Previous performance data plays a big part in paddock purchase decisions.
The Wonga Plains stock team is trained in Low Stress Stock Handling techniques and receives regular retraining. The team is also regularly trained by personnel from Bell Vet Clinic in areas such as prevention and recognition of sick cattle within the feedlot environment.
Wonga Plains’ sister company Signature Beef now processes and markets the majority of the trade cattle turned off from the feedlot. The cattle service a suite of commercial brands, but particularly Sondella, now featuring in restaurants along the east coast of Australia and exported into five countries.
The third main group of cattle consists of custom-fed Wagyu, a niche feeding segment in which Wonga Plains has been operating for 15 years. Most of the Wagyu that transition through the feedlot are held under retained ownership by a single breeder.
In a similar way to the company-owned and bred cattle and purchased cattle, the Wagyu arrive at the feedlot direct from the breeding property in pen-sized numbers, providing a homogenous, efficient beef production system and consistency from the paddock to the feedlot and on to the plate.
Rations are formulated with the assistance of a well-known and highly regarded feedlot nutritionist to specific needs of each category of cattle and market destination. Production and performance is reviewed monthly and actions are taken accordingly.
Wonga Plains operates a simple but effective Quality Assurance program with an emphasis on common sense, recording and controlling.
In developing its QA manual, the National Feedlot Accreditation Scheme standards have been used as a guide only, with other elements included that mirror the actual processes within the feedlot and its environment.
The QA Program assists in the practical routine of running the feedlot and allows implementation of a large number of Critical Control Points. To maximise these benefits, the business has created the role of Feedlot Administrator, whose main responsibility is to put the QA Program into action.
Internal Audits are conducted quarterly to ensure the smooth running of each sector of the QA Program and with it, the feedlot. National Livestock Identification System database checks and reconciliation of the database are part of these audits as well as a full external desk and physical audit.
Emphasising the importance the business places on the QA system, Wonga Plains has a total of ten QA officers on staff, for different segments of the operations. All staff receives regular training and retraining to keep up to date with the system. For that purpose, a Powerpoint presentation has been created and is presented to new staff members, as well as later use for retraining/refresher work.
Environmental responsibility has been entrenched in the operations of the Camm Group since the operation commenced four generations ago.
At Wonga Plains, the cycle of nutrients produced by the feedlot and returned back to the soil is given a high priority. This mostly self-sustainable circle is achieved by using all the manure and effluent to fertilise the crops on the company-owned farming country adjacent the feedlot. With the harvested grain, hay and fodder, these nutrients then return to the feedlot.
Wonga Plains enjoys a high staff retention percentage, with some key staff working within the Camm Ag group for more than 20 years. The feedlot provides on-site housing for around 75pc of its workforce on site. Flexible working hours is just one of the workplace features that assist in attracting and retaining staff.
Teamwork is considered essential within the Camm Ag Group and opportunity is provided for staff to move between the individual business units, providing variety and potential for staff to expand their skills-set. This also increases the availability of back-up staff if needed, and provides staff with a break from their everyday routine.
Wonga Plains also often hosts national and international working students, slowly creating bonds with a variety of Universities to increase the availability of knowledge in and around the feedlot industry.