We journey across Queensland to find out the secret to Westholme’s great tasting beef.
Born wild with the freedom to graze on natural land for as far as the eye can see, the Westholme cattle are raised on pristine tracts of Mitchell grass and finished on a specialised grain blend to achieve rich marbling throughout the cut,” explains Terry Farrell, global brand ambassador of the Australian Agricultural Company (AACo). Farrell is responding to my question about what makes Westholme’s beef so unique as compared to other premium beef brands.
“You’ll have a better idea after you visit our stations and see how our cattle are raised,” Farrell adds, as our plane—the Pilatus PC-12, a private aircraft owned by AACo—prepares to land at Wylarah Station. We are jointly hosted by AACo—Australia’s largest integrated cattle and beef producer specialising in wagyu—and Culina, a leading purveyor of exceptional and specialist epicurean foods and beverages, to visit a handful of AACo properties in Queensland to understand how their cattle are bred and raised, and how the consistency of care provided by the station managers and the emphasis on animal nutrition, have a direct impact on the quality of the meat.
Also on board the plane are Matthew Van Der Zwan, executive chef of Singapore Marriott Tang Plaza Hotel; Heidi Flanagan, chef de cuisine of Origin Grill & Bar at Shangri-La Hotel Singapore; Paul Hallet, executive chef of Skai Restaurant & Bar at Swissôtel The Stamford; and a representative from Culina.
During our one-hour flight from Archerfield to Surat, Farrell gave us a rundown of the functions of AACo’s stations, “Some are focused on breeding bulls, some on producing grain fed or grass fed cattle, and others on producing wagyu,” he says.
While we couldn’t remember all the names of the stations, a message that came through clearly was how each station, regardless of their role—whether it’s to produce wagyu or steers and heifers—is managed by a farming family who cares deeply for the land and have a passion for raising cattle.
A Mammoth Operation
Wylarah Station, located in the Central Queensland group, 15 kilometres from Surat, Queensland, is one out of over 20 properties owned by AACo and was our first stop of the trip. The station’s main focus is on breeding the Westholme Wagyu herd—AACo first purchased 600 Westholme wagyu cattle in 2006; its genetics originating from the most highly credentialed full-blood Black Wagyu to have left Japan, and the herd have since multiplied to comprise over 4,000 free-roaming cattle.
Taking us around in his 4WD over miles of semi-arid pastures, Clint Ashbacher shows us the areas where the cattle graze and we were in awe of the vast expanse of the land. It’s one thing to hear about how these cattle are free range, but it is another thing altogether to be able to witness with your own eyes how the animals roam freely across the 32,600 hectares land. With only Ashbacher and his team of men and women working at the station, one can’t help but wonder how they keep track of all the cattle’s movement.
“Each animal is electronically tagged from around three months of age to ensure lifetime traceability. This allows us to track the cattle’s activity levels, health and other key behaviours. Furthermore, every process including vaccination is recorded, so we can track its pedigree and weight history at any point in time,” he says.
According to Ashbacher, the breeding programme to produce the full blood calves is both costly and laborious, “When the bulls turn two, they are put through a procedure where their semen is retrieved, stored and frozen. This process is very effective in multiplying high quality genetics as one bull can generate up to 200 straws of semen. The bulls are then transported to AACo’s Barkly Tablelands stations such as Brunette Downs, where they are bred to females to produce calves that enter the Westholme and Wylarah branded beef programme,” he explains.
The young calves that are produced through this breeding programme are then raised on their mothers before grazing on native Mitchell grass for 18 months. Thereafter, the cattle will be sent to the feedlot to be finished on a grain-based diet comprising wheat, sorghum and oats, sweetened with molasses, which produces the rich marbling that they are coveted for.
“The grass and grain work together to deliver the intense marbling, complexity and depth of flavour that makes Westholme beef so special,” Ashbacher adds.
The Business of People
Next up on the itinerary was a visit to Brunette Downs, an epic three million acre station, located west of Brisbane on the Northern Territory’s Barkly Tablelands. To say that Brunette Downs is huge is an understatement—the station, which is one of Australia’s largest cattle stations, is more than 10 times the size of Singapore, and is home to over 95,000 cattle (as of April 2018). Here, we not only had a taste of station life, but also witnessed firsthand the depth of passion that these farmers have for the land and cattle.
Raising cattle and farming is tough work—the days are long and stifling hot, the work is physically demanding, and it doesn’t help that the stations are situated at incredibly isolated locations. The staff doesn’t just come to work and knock off at a certain time. There is no supermarket, no restaurants or shopping malls located within close proximity to Brunette Downs, and the nearest service town is Mt Isa, located 660 kilometres away. As such, all 45 to 50 of the full time staff live on the station, which receives supplies and groceries from from Mt Isa once a week.
“Our staff work very hard and long hours so it is important that they are well looked after and have a place to rest and socialise. We host various events throughout the year for our staff, such as the annual Brunette Downs Race and Campdraft & Rodeo, which help build great camaraderie among the team,” shares Michael Johnson, regional manager Barkly & VRG.
Electricity and healthcare are not taken for granted. Everything is run by generators, and there is no permanent doctor based on the station—a medical professional flies in once a week for consults. Although the only form of entertainment is a social club, housing a bar and a pool table, the hospitality, the comradery and the community spirit are very much alive. Clearly, station life is not for everyone, but these passionate folks take great pride and joy in what they do every single day to ensure a quality product.
Importance of Animal Nutrition
Our trip ends off with a visit to Goonoo, located just outside Comet in Central Queensland. Goonoo comprises a feedlot, station and farm, and is where the cattle go to be finished after grazing on grass.
“When the cattle arrive here, our duty is to ensure they receive the best nutrition as this will provide the excellent marbling in the end product. We have full-time nutritionists who ensure the cattle have the best opportunity to develop the fat. Coming through the feedlot process guarantees the consistency and quality of our product to the customer,” Jamie Raven, Goonoo feedlot manager shares.
The farm component at Goonoo, managed by John Deegan, runs an extensive programme of dryland cropping and irrigation to provide year-round high quality feed for the feedlot. Some of the fodder crops grown on the station include maize, barley, oats, lablab and millet.
From its well-thought-out breeding programme to its innovative farming operation and good welfare offered to all staff, AACo places equal emphasis on each aspect, believing that in order to get a good product, they should never compromise on quality, consistency, animal welfare, and the people despite their scale (they manage over 15.8 million acres of land and over 500,000 cattle in total). And it is exactly this commitment and genuine care towards the land, animals and people that have contributed to their great success.
It’s all about the People, Land and Cattle
Currently managing about 15.8 million acres of land and a herd of 500,000 cattle, with 600 people employed to run its integrated supply chain model, AACo has plans to further grow its business in the coming years to better meet the needs of customers.
Sharing his plans and vision for the organisation, Mr Hugh Killen, managing director and CEO of AACo says,
“Our plans are also around continuing the growth of our business globally, particularly our premium Westholme brand, and ensuring we continue to deliver our products to the highest standards. We will also continue to invest in product innovation, and stay committed to caring for our land and our animals. That’s the journey we’re excited to be on together with our customers.”
Westholme is exclusively distributed by Culina Pte Ltd, and is available at restaurants all over Singapore as well as at Culina Como Dempsey.
This article was first published in Wine & Dine’s Mar/Apr 2019 issue – The Art of Craft.