Production

Cape Grim’s Tassie suppliers move with the times

Jon Condon, 15/07/2011

Smithton beef producer Les Porteus says the development of the Cape Grim program has changed the dynamics in his family's cattle business  The rapid development and strong market support for Tasmania’s Cape Grim Natural grassfed beef brand has created new opportunities for local beef producers like Smithton’s Porteus family.

A steer produced by Les Porteus and his family was identified recently as providing the striploin sample which clinched the Royal Queensland Food and Wine show’s branded beef competition MSA grassfed division decided last month.

The Brisbane competition, now recognised as Australia’s premier branded beef contest, attracted 24 of the nation’s best brand programs in four divisions, from all States except WA.

A sample from Greenhams’ Cape Grim program won the grassfed division by more than 100 points – that’s equivalent to the length of the home straight in racing parlance – and was a genuine contender for overall championship honours, ultimately claimed by a Fullblood Wagyu entry that had spent 500+ days on feed.

Results like make a strong statement about the ‘legitimacy’ of quality grassfed product at the top end of Australia’s premium beef spectrum, where Cape Grim features prominently on menus in many of Australia’s best known restaurants.

Tasmania's reputation for its clean environment, abundant nutritious pastures, HGP policy and high standards of animal welfare provide an ideal starting point for a brand development program.

Linking carcase body numbers to NLIS tag data, Greenhams determined their winning entry came from the Porteus property near Smithton – not far from the weather station that records some of the world’s cleanest air samples, which gave the brand its name.

The Porteus family is one of 1200 cattle producers across Tasmania supplying into Greenham’s three grassfed brand programs – Cape Grim (premium heavyweight cattle), Pure South and Greenham Tasmanian Natural Beef, both yearling products sold into the NSW and Queensland wholesale markets.

Managing director Peter Greenham Jr said the company started building its grassfed brands in 2007.

“We started out grading only 100-200 MSA carcases a week, but we’re now putting through close to 1500 bodies weekly,” he said.

Grassfed now makes up 95pc of the Greenham Tasmania kill, with heavyweight Cape Grim cattle accounting for 30 percent of that, and the balance in the yearling programs.

“This year has produced an exceptional grass-growing season in Tasmania. The cattle have done really well and our MSA grading performance is as good as it has ever been,” he said.

Reflecting the quality of the grazing environment and superior genetics in use, carcases qualifying for the Cape Grim program typically average 400kg dressed weight, must reach MSA boning groups 1 and 2 – at the extreme upper end of the MSA quality range – and regularly produce marbling scores of 2-4 or higher off grass.

Les Porteus, wife Coralie and son Troy run their cattle on a total of 1700ha – their Smithton home property covering 500ha, plus an additional 1000ha at Roger River and 200ha at Mella.

Their operation is based on buying in young stores and turning them off within 12 months, aiming for a 400kg+ dressed weight.

1200 grower cattle per year

Typically, about 1200 grower cattle pass through their system each year, mainly British-bred and Angus-dominant, with a few carrying some European influence. Most are purchased around 12-15 months of age averaging about 380-400kg live, but sometimes extend down to weaned calves when supply is tight.

“Mostly, we source young cattle from King and Flinders Islands, but we can get them from anywhere in the state. Sourcing good even lines of feeder cattle can be a challenge,” Mr Porteus said.

Depending on time of year, average daily gains can go from 1kg to 1.5kg/day.

The cattle spend the growing phase on sown pasture, or stored hay over the winter feed gap.

The home block, lighter country on the coastal plain near Smithton, contrasts with black alluvial/volcanic country at Mella, and grey clay country at Roger River. Pasture mixes include English rye, clover and red clover, with other complementary grasses to extend the season.

One of the big challenges with maintaining continuity of supply into brand programs is annual feed deficits, which the family manages with spring hay production. Anything from 3000 to 4000 round bales of high-quality, high-protein hay is put away to fill the annual winter feed gap.

“Basically, three quarters of our working day at the moment is taken-up with getting hay out to the cattle,” Mr Porteus said.

Paddock rotation still occurs over winter to make use of what little pasture growth does occur.         
Mr Porteus said the momentum behind the Cape Grim program had brought some significant changes to their beef production system.

“Years ago, before the brand program started, the export market only wanted carcases 300-320kg. They were packed as generic grassfed ox for Japan. But gradually the carcase weights have crept up. With today’s genetics, we find we can hit the 400kg carcase weight targets effectively in Angus and Herefords, without getting penalised for being over-fat,” he said.

Because of the heavier carcase weights involved, the Porteus family today runs a few less cattle on the same amount of country than they did years ago. But equally, the considerable challenge in sourcing feeders is a little less intense than it was in earlier times.

“The sheer popularity of the Cape Grim brand means that the overwhelming majority, about 80 percent, of the product is retained on the domestic market, for use in top-end restaurants rather than export,” Mr Porteus said.

“It is much more of a domestic market focus today, than export. If we were still supplying lighter grassfed export beef to Japan and Korea, I think we would see the cattle price quite a bit less,” he said.

While there was no shortage of carcase performance feedback from the Greenham plant, there was a challenge in trying to trace where the top marbling cattle were coming from, for example, because of the reliance on aggregating young stock from such a wide variety of sources.

“But we think it will come, over time. It would obviously be an advantage in being able to go back to suppliers of earlier high-performers, or alternatively, avoid the poorer marbling performers.”

“That would add another degree of consistency to our business, especially if these MSA Four-Star and higher type programs really get going,” he said.

When he heard the news about his family supplying the sample that won the national competition in Brisbane, Mr Porteus said he was “quite impressed.”

“To win a nationwide competition is a pretty good feat, from what we can see. It helps put Tasmania and the Cape Grim program on the map.”

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