EXTRAORDINARY marbling performance was a key factor in a win for Ardsley Pastoral Co near Bathurst in southern NSW in JBS Australia’s Great Southern Beef Producer of the Year awards held in Melbourne on Friday.
Ardsley Pastoral principals Roger and Missy Wilkinson accepted their award from JBS Southern division chief operating officer Sam McConnell during Friday night’s Great Southern ten-year anniversary celebration gathering (see Friday’s report).
The event saw more than 500 JBS Great Southern beef and lamb suppliers from across Victoria, southern NSW, Tasmania and eastern regions of South Australia come together, along with key Great Southern meat customers, service providers and other stakeholders.
The Supplier of the Year awards, last celebrated in 2018 prior to COVID, are based on a pointscore system based on grading performance against MSA and company specifications, the percentage of consignment cattle that had an MSA index score over 60 and 65, and number of head supplied. The scores were weighted towards the more challenging seasonal supply quarters two and three.
Overall winners Roger and Missy Wilkinson consistently see more than 40 percent of their Great Southern yearling steer turnoff grading marbling score 4 or better off grass. That’s a remarkable achievement when it is considered that just 7pc of the Great Southern program’s vast turnoff of 3000-4000 a week grades marbling score 4, necessary to qualify for the Little Joe brand.
To the casual onlooker, the logical assumption is that the Wilkinsons must have a laser-like focus on breeding calves with extreme high genetic potential to produce abundant marbling.
But nothing could be further from the truth.
In fact, the Wilkinsons breed no steers themselves, instead buying-in weaners out of the general market to grow out for the Great Southern program. And there is no particular focus on ‘chasing’ certain breeding herds or bloodlines built around known high marbling genetics.
As steer traders, the couple focus on straight Angus or Angus x Hereford black baldies, bought as weaners out of saleyards across southern NSW or northern Victoria by regular commission buyer, Andrew Low, based out of Wagga.
“Our only instructions are look for good quality – obviously – and select for later maturing types that can grow out, with good temperament,” Roger Wilkinson told Beef Central.
“We don’t chase any particular bloodlines, but if we do get a few poor performers, we’ll tell our buyer to avoid that herd in future – and that applies equally to temperament, as well as marbling performance,” he said.
“Being steer traders, we don’t have any control over the genetics, so our focus in trying to optimise results is on nutrition and husbandry – that’s the only aspects we can manage.”
The Wilkinsons do not cell graze, but once each intake arrives, the mob is kept together for their lifetime.
“The less stress the better,” Missy Wilkinson said.
“Cattle are social creatures, so we don’t mix them up once they arrive and are put into their weight groups. When they come down the race, we find they often show up in the same sequence, with their mates.”
The Wilkinsons grow out their steers on around 1300ha of grass country near Bathurst, mostly prairie grass pastures with some white clover and other legume. Young cattle spend on average 12-15 months from entry weights around 300kg, exiting at carcase weights around 340-360kg.
The couple turn off around 600 steers each year, with the Great Southern portion processed at JBS Scone.
Their steers qualifying for the JBS Little Joe super-premium end of the Great Southern program, requiring marbling scores of 4 or better, receive a 40c/kg premium.
“Chasing that premium works for us – but they don’t get any special or unusual treatment to achieve it,” Mr Wilkinson said.
The couple buy in mobs of around 100 steers at a time, typically six times each year, but numbers are currently being wound-back by around 20pc as conditions turn dry.
During the peak of last year’s price boom the price of purchased weaners went north of $2300 a head for 320-350kg steers, but are now back considerably, with the last intake in February averaging around $1200 a head.
“We weren’t particularly concerned about paying those high prices, because our margins remained good, selling them out the other end,” Mr Wilkinson said.
“We always look at the change-over price, never back to what we paid, compared with what we’re selling now. Our margin is pretty much the same now as what it was during the earlier boom in weaner prices.”
JBS Southern division livestock manager Steve Chapman said it was not very often that suppliers to the Great Southern program had been able to achieve what the Wilkinsons had done.
“On a regular basis, over many, many months of the year, Ardsley Pastoral has achieved over 40 percent Little Joes (marbling score 4s or better) in every consignment. It is nothing short of outstanding,” Mr Chapman told Friday’s gathering.
The Wilkinsons took home a $10,000 cheque from sponsor, McKenzie Ag Services.
Runners-up for the 2023 Great Southern Producer of the Year title was Peter Watson from King Island, Tasmania, receiving a $2500 voucher from Clipex, while third went to Steve and Anne Ward, VF Holdings, Barrington Tasmania, receiving a $1250 RM Williams voucher provided by Pat Harrolds Transport.
This year’s Great Southern Producer of the Year results perhaps reflected the difficult seasonal conditions in parts of Victoria due to excessively wet conditions at times during the past year, with the majority of this year’s ‘Top ten’ placegetters in both beef land lamb originating from either Tasmania or South Australia.
Commitment to a quality program
JBS Southern chief operations officer Sam McConnell said the awards night recognises the commitment of Great Southern and its top-performing producers to providing Australia with the highest quality red meat.
“Our goal is to guarantee customer confidence that our meat is responsibly sourced and sustainably produced from grassfed, free-range livestock across Southern Australia. This awards night is about recognising and rewarding our producers for sharing this goal and passion with us,” Mr McConnell said.
Staying true to an original strategy
JBS Australia chief executive Brent Eastwood told the gathering the Great Southern farm-assured beef and lamb program had stayed true to the original strategy developed ten or twelve years ago.
“It has not deviated since day one,” he said. “There have been trying times along the way where the P&L did not necessarily encourage such programs to continue, but we were committed; the team did not waiver.
“The best form of flattery is often others copying your ideas, and if you look around southern Australia today, many of JBS’s competitors have developed programs somewhat similar to Great Southern.”
“But ours is the first; we’re committed to it; and it’s the largest grassfed brand program of its type in the world, backed by high integrity and performance. But it takes many committed people – from producers all the way through to plant level – to make it all work.”
“So many of our suppliers have stayed with us all the way through, and can share in the pride in the program’s success.”
Mr Eastwood said JBS’s Melbourne cutting room, which prepares portioned steaks for food service customers all the way from Lizard Island north of Cairns to southern Tasmania, relied heavily on Great Southern brands, which remained extremely popular with customers.
He said one of his (and JBS Southern’s COO Sam McConnell’s) early mentors when working in the JBS US business advised them, “Put the right product in the right box, and ask the right price.”
“Over ten years with Great Southern, we’ve stuck to that mantra – don’t cut corners, or do anything that’s not true to the brand’s values and mission statement.”
Mr Eastwood said it was impossible to operate a program like Great Southern, if it was expected that revenue could be recovered from just the four ‘sweet cuts.’
“The four grilling cuts do not make up enough of the carcase to pay a premium for the whole body. But that’s been one of the strengths of the Great Southern program. Sure, the sweet cuts have been very, very good, demand wise – but it’s the ability to extract price recognition for the other cuts and trim. Nearly all of the carcase is sold at a premium – that means when it is all aggregated back, we can hopefully pay more money for the cattle suppliers who go to the trouble to produce it.”
JBS Southern head of sales, Robert Ryan, attributed Great Southern’s popularity with consumers to the export and domestic markets’ increased expectation of transparency across the value chain and assured sustainable production.
“Our customers place utmost trust in the program’s guarantee, knowing they will consistently receive products of superior eating quality that were produced sustainably across all aspects of the value chain,” he said.