January 28, 2015

Secrets of a successful Wagyu farmer

David Blackmore’s melt-in-the-mouth Wagyu beef is recognised around the world thanks, he says, to a healthy farm and happy cattle. Today his biggest challenge is keeping up with demand from some of the world’s leading chefs and restaurateurs.

For centuries, Wagyu cattle were used by the Japanese as draft animals. Today their meat is highly prized and highly priced.

David Blackmore, who features on the February pages of this year’s NAB Agribusiness Calendar, helped pioneer full-blood Wagyu production in Australia by importing top bloodlines from Japan. Now, award-winning Wagyu beef from his farm in Alexandra, Victoria sells for over $1,000 a kilo in leading restaurants such as Melbourne’s Nobu.

He attributes his success to hard work, passion, dedication – and happy cows. “The happier they are, the better they perform,” he says.

Room to move

Blackmore’s animals have plenty of space, with just 25 on each five-acre paddock. “A lot of critics said they’d walk around too much, but they’re so relaxed they spend most of their time lying down,” he says. “We were also warned that they’d eat too much grass. In fact, grass makes up less than 5 percent of their diet and we’ve gained a 20 percent increase in productivity on exactly the same rations we were providing in the feedlot.”

Blackmore is currently three years into a five-year project known as eco-feeding®. “This includes things like husbandry and product integrity as well as animal welfare, nutrition and maintaining a clean, healthy environment,” he says.

The farm water run-off is filtered through the natural vegetation and he’s fenced all lagoons and rivers so there’s no run-off from them. The manure from around the feed pads is used as a natural fertiliser on the irrigation pastures instead of chemical fertilisers. His cattle are weaned on to a secret ration of fully sustainable by-products of human food production with no added antibiotics or HGPs (growth hormones). “In this environment they build up their own immunity to disease,” says Blackmore.

While implementing all of these initiatives he’s never lost sight of the fact that sustainability is also about profitability. “If a business isn’t commercially viable, it isn’t sustainable,” he says.

Close monitoring

Blackmore has talked about Wagyu with most of the world’s best-known chefs, including Heston Blumenthal, owner of the multi-award-winning restaurant The Fat Duck. “Heston told me that, to get a consistent product, you must control everything you do, just as he does in the kitchen,” says Blackmore. “This took me back a bit because, as farmers, there’s a lot that’s out of our control.”

However, Blackmore does monitor every stage of the animal’s life from conception to plate. “When we couldn’t find a comprehensive database we developed our own,” he says. “We draw on that and our own experience to manage everything from genetics to seasonal changes and customer expectations.”

His biggest challenge is meeting demand from his customers. “Restaurants want the same amount of the same quality beef every month,” he says. “The only way we can do that is by producing calves every month instead of just in spring and autumn when the feed’s good.”

Blackmore has seen many Wagyu farmers come and go. “They look at the price of the meat on their plate and see it as an easy profit,” he says. “They don’t consider that Wagyu cattle are much harder to look after than traditional beef cattle.”

And as he approaches his 65th birthday, Blackmore is finalising his succession plans. “I doubt I’ll ever retire but perhaps I won’t work quite as hard,” he says. “The next generation is talking about doubling production and, as long as they maintain the same quality, I’m sure they still won’t meet the demand.”

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