PIONEERING the establishment of a new cattle breed in Australia is not for the faint-hearted but for Richard and Elizabeth Gunner, the immense opportunity was more than enough to drive such an incredibly challenging feat.
English Longhorns were the answer to premium-end chef demands for exclusivity and top-shelf eating experience but they were also the cattleman’s answer to that elusive and potent mix of high return, low cost of production.
The Gunner’s Willock Park beef from English Longhorns crossed with Angus and South Devon are commanding restaurant menu prices of $110 for a 500 gram rib eye on the bone.
The likes of Neil Perry’s Rockpool Bar and Grill in Sydney request all that can be supplied from the herd.
It’s only five years since Mr Gunner’s first Longhorn cross calves hit the ground in South Australia but hundreds of thousands of dollars has been spent importing embryos, selecting for traits like fertility and adaptation to Australian summers and building numbers.
He now has 70 stud animals and a commercial herd of 500 crossbreds on agisted fertilised lucerne, phalaris, primrose and veldt grass in the south east of South Australia.
Fascinatingly, it was the introduction of Angus into McDonald’s fast food chains that forced the Gunners to start globe trotting in the search for something new.
The couple, who run a meat business with seven butcher shops supplying over 300 restaurants, were one of the first on the Angus brand train.
Coorong Angus, launched in 2001, is today the oldest operating Angus brand.
But when McDonald’s Angus burger was launched, the Gunner’s top end chef customers no longer wanted Angus and were asking “what can you get for me instead?”
With one of his customers, world-class chef Jock Zonfrillo, Mr Gunner flew to England to look at Blackbrook Longhorn stud.
The hurdles involved in getting these genetics to Australia were enormous, not to mention the investment, but ten head of females and bulls were born in SA in 2013 and so began Willock Park.
Two more batches of embryos have since been imported.
“This animal is highly successful in the premium end of the beef market in England so the meat quality was something we didn’t have to work on,” Mr Gunner said.
“Likewise, a lot of the traits were in place. For example, in England these cattle are used extensively in conservation grazing in national parks to they are able to forage well and produce high quality beef on roughage.”
Strong progress has been made to breed traits around fertility and coat slickness and hair length in order to handle Australian heat.
Around eight animals a month are turned off, at carcase weights of 350 kilograms-plus, by 30 months, processed at local small abattoirs.
This year’s crop are mostly F1 English Longhorn with heifers retained to start a grade-up program to increase the percentage of Longhorn in future years.
Cattle are topped up with grain when seasons demand in order to maintain a rising nutrition plane.
Richard Gunner’s Fine Meats does the butchering and the dry-aged beef is sold direct to restaurants, where it labeled Willock Park English Longhorn on menus, and through the Gunner’s retail shops.
“It’s a big carcase, an old-fashioned type of bullock, the fat cover is 10 to 15mm, with an adequate amount of marbling in the one to four score range,” Mr Gunner said.
“What it hangs its hat on is the flavour profile difference - it’s fuller and more robust than other English breeds.”
The Longhorn herd is now for sale, with the Gunners opting to concentrate on the meat business. It comes with the established pathway to premium markets.
And, Mr Gunner acknowledges, solid opportunity for growth, particularly in terms of exports of both beef and genetics.
It’s not an article likely to be overproduced and thus go the way of a premium commodity, Mr Gunner believes.
“It’s extremely challenging in terms of quarantine to import genetics so if someone wanted to go down the same path, they are going to have to go down the same costly paths we did and it will be many years before they’d have anything on the market,” he said.
“Then they need similar distribution channels, which we’ve have via our meat business.”