From the paddocks and pens to the dinner plate

The country down under is still riding high on the back of its red meat exports

Many Australians continue to live off the land and are taking pride in a red meat industry that delivers top-quality food from the paddock to the plate.

But before it reaches its destination there will be all sorts of processes and rituals it has to go through. In the sales yards in Ballarat, in the southeastern state of Victoria, an auctioneer spits out an endless string of words that brings to mind the rat-a-tat of machine gun fire.

It is unlikely that the casual observer, including the most fluent native speaker of Australian English, would have the slightest clue what he is saying. But then there are the meat buyers who are presumably on top of it all. They arrived early in the morning looking for a good buy.

The auctioneer wastes little time trotting around a labyrinth of wire-fenced pens, each of which holds two or three bulls or cows based on their age, weight and other physical conditions.

He gives a quick albeit passionate rundown on the cattle he is about to sell then calls for the bidding to begin. The buyers follow closely in his steps and keep their eyes on the animals while listening attentively to his words.

Whenever the auctioneer pauses for a second or two the bids flood in, and the bidders have to be quick, because a moment’s delay can mean a good deal is lost.

On this day a total of 460 cattle are for sale, and all will be sold, says Eric Egstrein, a contracted officer with Meat and Livestock Australia.

Some are for breeding purposes, some will be fed on grain and brought back for a better price, and the fate of the rest will be to end up on dinner plates.

There are 27 trading yards of various sizes across Victoria, Egstrein says, up to 2,000 cattle a day being sold at the biggest of them.

Victoria accounts for three percent of the total land area in Australia but contributes about 20-30 percent of meat exports, mainly beef and mutton, thanks to good rainfall and a temperate climate.

The country provides a wide range of high-quality red meat, such as grass-fed beef, grain-fed beef, organic beef and breed-specific products such as Wagyu and Angus, gourmet lamb, nutritious mutton and wild goat.

Egstrein collects transaction data that will help buyers and producers keep a tab on prices and let them know when the time is ripe to make certain moves in the market.

Behind the scenes a lot is done to ensure the integrity of the red-meat industry, one of local pillar economies.

“They start weighing cattle at four o’clock in the morning and finish at eight,” Egstrein says.

Cattle are usually put on a fast 10 hours before they are weighed so they are not carrying too much water or feed.

It takes a few hours to make other arrangements such as putting the data related to the cattle on the information board of the pen where the cattle are sent so potential buyers can easily appraise what it is that is being offered to them.

When cattle are born an electronic tag is attached to one of their ears so diseases, provenance, the name of owners and transactions can be tracked, Egstrein says.

About 500 full-blooded cattle roam around a paddock that belongs to Nick Sher at Ballan, 35 kilometers from Ballarat. The farm covers 280 hectares and the green grass is in such good trim that the property could easily be mistaken for a golf course. Sher and his wife Vicki run the farm with the help of their son Jack.

Some of their main responsibilities are animal care, preparing cattle for artificial insemination, farm maintenance work, moving hay and analyzing meat data.

Collecting hay is a demanding part of the work, says Nick Sher, adding that it is all the more crucial when grass will not grow well because of inadequate rainfall at certain times of the year. Right breeding is also a decisive factor in ensuring the cattle quality.

Cattle producers can get data on their cows once they are killed. Since full-blooded cattle can be traced back to their parents, the data on their offspring can help the Shers find out the best bull for breeding and take their semen in advance for future artificial insemination.

Reaching a decision can take several years because a lot of offspring data are needed to ensure consistency.

 

The Shers have established their own brand, Sher Wagyu, which is now supplied directly to local restaurants and exported to dozens of countries, and one customer they have recently gained is a restaurant in Shanghai.

“We’ve been sending products to China for at least five years, but sales have only been regular since probably the middle of last year,” Nick Sher says.

About 30 tons of the meat was delivered to the Chinese mainland over the past 10 months, he says, adding that an increasing number of Chinese are beginning to appreciate quality meat.

Now, premium high-end fine dining restaurant, five-star hotels and popular brand hotpot restaurants, particularly in China’s first- and second-tier cities, are major consumers of Australia’s red meat.

Australia was lucky to have introduced the Wagyu from Japan before bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, or mad cow disease) hit the country.

Keeping the animals happy is key to maintaining the quality of the meat, Nick Sher says, and low-stress handling is applied throughout production.

Trees are planted to ensure the quality of the natural environment, then trees will attract birds, which will keep insects and pests away, Sher says.

Australia is recognized globally for its high quality and food safety credentials.

“It is an island nation with a natural boarder and is free from all major livestock disease, which gives us a very strong advantage in exports”, says Michael Finucan, general manager of the International Market of Meat and Livestock Australia.

The country supplies quality meat to more than 100 markets, including China.

It exported 148,000 tons of beef, 31,000 tons of lamb and 29,000 tons of mutton to China last year, and Finucan forecasts stable market supply in China this year. Customized meat, such as cuts, carcasses and frozen and chilled products are sold to the country.

“China is a big country with a large population, and with many different regions with various different dinning habits and different cuisine,” Finucan says. “We see China not as one market but many different markets in one country.”

The meat authority has also launched training programs, promotions, seminars, workshops and cooking classes to showcase the quality and safety of Australian red meat quality and safety, as well as to disseminate information on buying it, cutting it and cooking it, Finucan says.

“The imported beef and sheep meat market in China has grown quickly, and the biggest challenge for Meat and Livestock Australia is helping educate our customers (importers) about our systems, technical buying specifications and handling and management of the product.”

The final slaughtering procedure features manual and automated work, with strict sanitation at the premises of G & K O’Connor Pty Ltd in Pakenham, Victoria.

Workers are divided into groups solely responsible for cutting a specific part off an animal, each of which will go through microorganism evaluation to ensure safety.

A love of animals is what motivated Nick Sher to choose work in the industry 25 years ago.

“At the end of the day they have to die, but … they have a really good life while they’re alive, and they only have one bad day. They will die humanely.”

 

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