There is increasing your herd, then there is the Mayura Station, Australia, where 7,000 Wagyu cows are on their way to being doubled. James Wagstaff finds out more about the ambition and aims of the de Bruin family and finds out why customers are paying huge money to eat their beef.
This is not your run-of-the-mill beef farm. Spread over 3,000 hectares (7,413 acres) near Millicent, on the South Australian Limestone Coast, Mayura Station is a multifaceted operation which not only breeds, feeds and markets its award-winning Wagyu beef, but serves it up at its own on-farm restaurant.
In fewer than 20 years, the de Bruin family has turned a casual conversation about the benefits of eating Wagyu beef into a multi-million-dollar vertically integrated farming operation.
Such is the demand for Mayura product, diners in some of the nation’s top restaurants pay more than AU$1,000/kg (£788/kg) for it, and the farm is in the third year of a five-year expansion plan which will lead to production being doubled.
The farm is home to 7,000 full-blood Wagyu cattle, turning off more than 100 steers and heifers monthly to produce 30 tonnes of retail beef.
While most is exported to the lucrative Asian market, with Hong Kong, China and Singapore the major destinations, Mayura also graces the menus of some of Australia’s best restaurants, including Koko’s and Philippe Mouchel, Melbourne.
Scott de Bruin says while Wagyu cattle were only introduced to the property in the 1990s, the station itself was steeped in history.
It was selected in 1845 as one of South Australia’s first pastoral leases, with surveyors seeing the potential of the region which has since been ranked number one in the country for primary production and is home to a number of agricultural pursuits, such as forestry, viticulture, dairy, grazing and fishing.
Like many original large holdings, Mayura was carved up and sold off over the years.
After Scott’s parents married in the early 1970s, they bought a small slice of the former station, on which they grew treelings for forestry.
Scott’s father Adrian founded Auspine, which had amassed more than 40,000ha (99,000 acres) of tree plantations by the time it was sold to Tasmanian forestry giant Gunns in 2007.
Over time, the family bought more neighbouring land, and in the mid-1980s, secured the original Mayura homestead block, adding more land along the way.
The family’s involvement with Wagyu cattle began in the 1990s, when Adrian’s work took him overseas.
Scott says: “Each time my father would travel to Japan, he would try Wagyu and would come back and say ‘the meat is just amazing’.”
Jack and Pip Rasenberg, managers on the de Bruin property at the time, added their input, having worked with Japanese-owned feedlots.
Scott says: “They always used to say if we ever got the opportunity we should try and get some Wagyu genetics into our operations.
“They heard of some Wagyu cattle leaving Japan and told Dad, who jumped at the chance.”
Via the US, 25 females arrived from Japan in January 1998, in one of the first shipments of full-blood Wagyu cattle to Australia.
Along with four bulls bought in 1999, these formed the foundation of Mayura, which is now the nation’s largest privately owned full-blood Wagyu herd.
The family runs 2,600 full-blood Wagyu breeding cows, mostly joined by artificial insemination, with 150 bulls on-hand for backup.
Each year, about 90 per cent of cows get AI’d. The remaining 10 per cent, which might have calved late, do not fall back into the synchronisation program and are naturally mated.
Scott says: “We get about 65-70 per cent conception on the AI, depending on the year, then mop up with bulls.”
While the family sources some outside genetics, they breed most bulls on-farm.
He says: “Our 2005 bull, Mayura Itoshigenmi Jnr, an industry leader for almost every trait, including marbling and eye muscle area, was still by far outperforming any genetics we are able to buy.”
At the Australian Wagyu Association’s annual conference in May, a package of 10 semen straws from Itoshigenami Jnr sold for AU$30,500 (£24,045), or AU$3,050 (£2,404) a straw.
To ensure consistent supply all-year-round, there are two calvings running from the end of February to June and from late August to early December.
When they are born, calves receive an electronic eartag, which records birth date, sex, birthweight and mother.
Cattle are weighed every two months, with all information assessed against carcase performance at slaughter.
Scott says: “This means we can see which joinings work well, which sires and cows perform well and which perform badly and need to be culled.”
Calves are yard-weaned at six months old and enter what Scott calls as a 300-day background ‘range-feeding’ programme, introduced in 2009.
He says: “Full-blood Wagyus are not fantastic paddock performers. If you left them out in the paddock, their weight gains would be very low, so I developed a programme where we are actually supplementary feeding these cattle out in the paddock.
“They get 6-8kg/head of feed delivered to them every day, which is mainly a silage-based ration with some grains. We do this from six months through to between 16-18 months, depending on cattle.
“They do a lot better through this production system and weaning cows from calves early gives us extra capacity to be able to run more breeding cattle.”
Mayura runs a continual pasture improvement programme, sowing 150-250ha (370-618 acres) of new pasture a year.
Paddocks are split into cells of about 10-15ha (25-37 acres) which each host about 70 cattle. Half the cells are empty at any one time, allowing pastures (mostly rye-grass with sub clover) and ground to recover.
The property, which boasts soils ranging from deep heavy peat and rendzinas to heavy loams and black clay over a limestone base, receives an average of 720mm of rain a year.
Having been caught out by high grain prices in the past, the farm has an annual cropping programme of 1,200ha (2,965 acres) of wheat, broadbeans, oats, maize and rye-grass and clover silage.
Everything, apart from broadbeans, which are sold as a cash crop, go into their feeding programme, resulting in the business being about 70 per cent self-sufficient.
Scott says: “Some years, cost of production on grains is not a lot cheaper than what it would be to buy the feed, whereas other years, you are substantially in front.
“However, we can grow silage and hay economically. This year will probably be one of those years where it might have been cheaper just to buy grain.”
After about 300 days on feed in the paddock, the best performing cattle enter Mayura’s state-of-the-art undercover finishing barn, complete with sawdust floors and a fully automated feed delivery system, built in 2006.
The barn is licensed to hold 500 cattle, but Scott hopes to increase overall capacity to about 2,000-head as part of expansion plans.
In the barn, cattle are sorted into pens according to their age and weight and fed about 8.2kg of dry matter a day for another 300 days.
There are three wheat-based rations containing corn, meal, bran and other by-products, including chocolate.
Scott says: “The first ration is very much about growing cattle, focusing on the frame and muscle. The next is about marbling, then the last ration is about flavour.”
Chocolate was introduced to rations after Scott could not readily access one ingredient designed to increase marbling in the beef.
When he switched back to the ingredient, there was an almost immediate backlash from consumers.
He says: “Within six weeks, customers in Singapore and Hong Kong were on the phone asking what we had done to our product as it no longer tasted the same.
“People’s palates were refined enough to notice the difference, which was wonderful feedback for us.”
Cattle are slaughtered in a monthly kill of about 100-head: 70 for the long-fed Mayura brands and 30 for Mayura’s Limestone Ridge brand – a free-range, grain-assisted full-blood Wagyu product.
Long-fed cattle produce a 430kg average carcase, with the Limestone Ridge cattle dressing out at about 350kg.
The brand comprises three labels: the entry level Gold label (mainly sold in Australia); Platinum (high marble score and sold mainly into Asia); and Signature (the top-end product, which pretty much goes into China and Hong Kong).
About 70 per cent of product is exported, with Hong Kong the biggest single market, followed by China, where Mayura beef retails in supermarkets for about AU$670/kg (£528/kg), Singapore, Dubai, the Philippines and Taiwan.
In 2010, the family opened The Tasting Room, which is essentially a cellar door-style on-farm restaurant, aimed at showcasing produce to the public.
With seating for about 35 people, the restaurant is booked out most weekends and diners spend an average of AU$150 (£118) to be shown how to prepare, cook and savour the flavours of Mayura Wagyu by head chef Mark Wright.
It was named best steak restaurant at the 2014 South Australian Restaurant and Catering Awards.
The family are no strangers to industry accolades, having won numerous Delicious magazine produce awards (including being a state winner this year), the 2004 South Australian Meat Exports Award and gold medals in the Australian Wagyu Association’s branded beef awards in 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015.
The plan is to double Mayura’s output over the next two years, taking production to 60 tonnes of retail beef a month, with a specific focus on meeting the growing Asian demand.
Scott says: “It is interesting because if you want to grow your herd, you have to keep your females, so you are greatly reducing what you can turn into market.
“We have reached a point now where we have said ‘right, that’s enough breeders we want to run’ and now all those cattle come through the system.”
The Mayura system seems to have mastered the art of feeding the world’s growing appetite for quality Wagyu.