Angus stud breeds marbling to perk up taste buds

The name Brittain is synonymous with the highly successful “blackening” of New Zealand’s beef cattle herd. Andrea Fox visits a nerve centre of the angus revolution, Storth Oaks stud.

Andrea Fox – December 7th 2015

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Tim Brittain: “You’ve got to have a breeding plan, a programme, and stick to it.”

Northern King Country angus studmeisters Tim and Kelly Brittain aren’t ones to use 20 words when two will do.

Especially when asked to explain what drives the farming programme and practices at Storth Oaks Angus.

“Taste matters,” says Tim Brittain, chairman of New Zealand’s leading beef brand AngusPure, former president of Angus New Zealand and ex-Meat Board director.

 

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The farm usually calves about 310 registered females a year, including first-calving heifers.
The farm usually calves about 310 registered females a year, including first-calving heifers.

(Kelly nominated her husband as the only spokesperson for the picturesque hill country stud in the Paewhenua district, near Otorohanga, though he says she is “critical” to the stud and farming operations and runs the show day-to-day.)

“Consumers want a good-tasting steak or beef meal. They’re not so concerned with how an animal looks, which is what a lot of (old school) breeders emphasise,” he says.

“If you look at the most successful branding programme in the world which is Certified Angus Beef in the US, which has been going on 35 years now, they have clearly identified marbling as the No 1 criteria for cattle to get into that programme.

“It can be summed up in two words: taste matters. Our programme is all about breeding cattle that are going to end up as better beef on people’s plates. We want to be able to breed bulls we can sell to our customers, who are then going to breed better steers and heifers to go into the beef trade.”

The Brittains’ relentless pursuit of quality has resulted in the average bull offered at Storth Oaks’ annual May on-farm sale typically being in the top 5 per cent of the breed in New Zealand. The lowest-scoring, as measured by the AngusPure index, is typically still in the top 15 per cent of the breed.

Again, how the registered stud has achieved this level can be summed up in a few words: Use of technology: artificial insemination; performance recording and ceaseless measuring.

This won’t surprise dairy farmers, or poultry, pork and even sheep meat producers. But for many beef farmers, says Brittain, uptake of technologies for genetic selection and evaluation and of scoring systems to produce better and more profitable cattle is still new-frontier stuff.

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“The beef cattle industry is a very slow adopter of technology. If you look at the genetic evaluation system, BreedPlan, whilst the majority of stud breeders use it and more and more commercial buyers are utilising it to help them in bull-buying decisions, not all stud breeders believe in it. They think it’s a lot of baloney and it’s really just something they’ve got to have because their customers want to see it there.”

BreedPlan uses BLUP (best linear unbiased prediction) technology to produce estimated breeding values (EBVs) for cattle for a range of important production traits.

The genial Brittain isn’t so much critical of beef farmers as frustrated that more aren’t hungrily pursuing the rewards of faster genetic beef quality gain.

He’s concerned that if New Zealand farmers don’t make quality prime profitable beef production their priority, land will be lost to other, more profitable, uses.

“Marbling is recognised as the key indicator of good beef eating, consistently providing juicy, tender and flavoursome meat. Marbling does not cost anything to include in the breeding mix, so why not add it to your criteria?”

Auckland-city-bred Brittain says he’s always had a “slight technological bent” and he hails from an entrepreneurial business family.

He co-owns Auckland-based sporting goods importer and distributor Brittain Wynyard with brother Chris.

Their grandfather founded the business in 1923, after emigrating from Sheffield, England where the Brittain family produced fine steel cutlery. Storth, meaning “strong” in the Yorkshire vernacular, was the family home.

Brittain was bitten by the farming bug while on school holidays at his maternal grandfather’s Marlborough high country sheep and angus cattle farm. He worked on several angus beef and sheep farms before and during attending Massey University. After graduating he worked fulltime for Brittain Wynyard until 1980 when the company bought an undeveloped 218ha farm, now part of the Storth Oaks operation.

Brittain managed its development with brother Chris and in 1986 on his own account bought a neighbouring 169ha farm that was more developed and with slightly easier contours. In 1995 his brother exited farming and Brittain took over and restructured the operations into one farm.

On the way to establishing Storth Oaks as a stud, he’s dabbled in friesian bull rearing, farmed deer for 15 years, and earned a Masters of Business Administration.

The stud was founded almost by accident. Brittain had quit farming a commercial angus herd of cows in the early 80s but by the end of that decade was “missing” cows to help control land reclaimed from scrub.

He went to an angus stud dispersal sale in 1991 and in a buyer’s market “kind of unintentionally” bought 37 stud cows for the price of commercial animals.

He then bought 20 stud heifers and “got really interested”.

Storth Oaks’ signature use of AI came about because Brittain wanted to breed better cattle quicker, but did not have the money to invest in good bulls.

“Buying semen gave us the ability to source the best genetics. Very few breeders do this to the extent we do.”

Another departure from the norm was to mate yearling heifers. The stud has done this since 1991 and it is not common practice in the beef industry, Brittain says.

“We do fixed-time insemination for two cycles and put the bull out for follow-up for the third cycle. With cows, the general programme has been to fixed-time inseminate two or up to three cycles and not use the follow-up bulls.

“You make huge genetic progress quickly but you lose some cattle in the process of being synchronised. We are pretty ruthless on culling those that don’t get in calf.”

AI makes for a lot of extra work but the couple, who also put a lot of emphasis on breeding for quiet temperament, wouldn’t have it any other way.

They recently returned from an American angus convention, where 53 per cent of US angus cow registrations were AI’d animals, Brittain says.

“In New Zealand, it wouldn’t be 10 per cent.”

Brittain’s not sure why usually innovative Kiwi farmers have been slow to adopt such basic technology.

“With traditional beef and sheep farmers, often the beef has been second fiddle because sheep generated more income, maybe it comes from that. There is this thing in hill country farming that the whole emphasis has to be on the structure of the animal and its ability to forage in hill country.

“Kelly and I wouldn’t dispute that. We take structure as a given and put a lot of emphasis on that but our programme is also going to be about breeding cattle that are going to end as better beef on people’s plates.”

Storth Oaks brings in independent, certified experts annually to assess and rate the structure of bulls.

Brittain regrets the emphasis the “eye value” farmers continue to put on the weight and look of bull sires.

“We don’t have a target weight for the (May) sale. But farmers still buy by their eyes. We are attracting buyers who are interested, and have a belief in, performance attributes. Among all the bulls on the market in New Zealand we have a very high figure for all attributes.

“Our EBVs are very high, we rank highly on BreedPlan and we put a lot of emphasis on the indexes (AngusPure). It’s hard to get through to commercial farmers who will look at a bull and buy on how big and fat it is that this will have absolute zero bearing on the calves the bull will leave.

“The bull will leave calves based on his genetic makeup.”

Brittain says the stud cattle industry’s focus on the heaviest and biggest bull is a disservice to the commercial beef farmer.

“It’s not in his interests to have really heavy bulls. He needs bulls that have a genetic makeup that will leave superior progeny. Going down that track, we don’t publish sale-day weights, which is unusual. We think they are absolutely meaningless. Having said that, we try to have sale-day animals at 700kg or better but it should have no bearing on it.”

The Brittains also think outside the box on feeding.

They strip-graze – grass and crops – and use a Keenan mixer to feed cows supplements in winter and calves after weaning.

August and September-born calves are yard-weaned in February. The farm usually calves about 310 registered females a year, including first-calving heifers.

Weaned calves go into small paddocks and are fed for up to eight days a Keenan mix of straw, baleage, maize silage, minerals, molasses and grass silage.

Brittain says the mix is very much straw-based and when chopped to cigarette-lengths it creates scratchy edges which help stimulate rumen development.

Bull calves are then sent to strip-graze fodder beet paddocks for three months with some extra roughage supplied. Heifer calves are turned out to the hills.

They are run in one mob, as are the bull calves, until 400-days-old before observation-yarding in October and November when each calf is measured against how it has competed in its mob.

“No-one gets preferential treatment. There are no little mobs of this or that which have already been pre-selected. That would destroy those important BreedPlan observations at 400 days which are critical. That’s when the major scanning, scrotal size, all those things are measured,” Brittain says.

“We believe you get much more reliable and accurate information having them in one contemporary group.”

At 400-day observation, the bull mob is split in half and farmed through to the end of January, when it is decided which bulls will make the 60-65 May sale team.

Bull calves with genetic defects have by then been steered for beef finishing and bulls which don’t make the cut in January are killed as bull beef. Heifer calves which don’t come up to standard are also finished for the beef trade.

The average price at this year’s Storth Oaks bull sale, which included sire bulls sold to other studs, was $5700, the stud’s highest yet.

“We don’t get the fancy prices they get on the East Coast but we’re very comfortable with ours,” says Brittain.

“We really question whether a commercial farmer can afford to pay north of $6000. Beef prices are improving but it is quite an investment and we want them to get a return on that investment.”

The farm, which employs a stock manager and a shepherd, carries 700 romney ewes to look after the steepest country and weed control.

“We just buy them in and put them to a terminal sire. We don’t keep replacements because it just complicates things. With a stud it’s difficult having a lot of different animals that require special treatment, like young hoggets or deer,” says Brittain.

He reckons the beef industry needs some “destructive thinking” to drive necessary change and pick up its pace.

The industry model seems to be on trying to stay the same, “how to remain the same as our fathers did and our fathers before them”, he says.

Destructive thinking is business-speak for forcing a change of thinking to progress. It happened to Apple when co-founder Steve Jobs was fired.

Brittain reckons the medium-term outlook for beef is positive – particularly for angus.

His advice for budding young beef farmers?

“You’ve got to have a breeding plan, a programme, and stick to it. Don’t deviate because you get to a sale and think that other bull looks nicer.”

– Stuff