Ask any top chef and they will tell you that the ingredients going into a memorable steak start well before it lands in a restaurant kitchen.
A great beef eating experience requires top cattle genetics, good finishing and careful handling of the carcass when it’s processed. Each individual from a stud farmer, to a beef fattener, butcher and chef has a role to play.
Chef Gareth Titchmarsh, at Hamilton restaurant Smith and McKenzie, is amazed at how much care goes into cattle from selecting the right bulls to go to a herd to finishing the animals and then chefs cooking the food and making sure it is properly presented.
“It’s just quality all of the way through. You know people are looking after the product ahead of you to make sure you get a good product when it’s finally delivered to you.”
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He is not alone in his appreciation of the paddock to plate journey.
This was highlighted when the New Zealand Hereford Association invited Waikato chefs to see for themselves where the beef they serve every day comes from.
Titchmarsh says the beef that farmers produce is an amazing product receiving positive reviews at the Smith and McKenzie restaurant.
High grade hereford beef production starts at studs such as Bushy Downs near Te Awamutu. The 340 hectare farm is one of 88 registered breeders in Waikato and has been producing the breed for over 70 years.
The stud is run by Robert and Marion Port and son Calvin, who has just taken over the day to day running of the operation from his parents.
Robert’s father Martin started the stud in 1943 and he continued his father’s philosophy of breeding bulls that are quiet and have a great loin. If it can walk, then it has good muscles and frame, he says.
“It must walk and Dad always stuck to that philosophy. If it had poor muscles then it was a struggler and Dad never liked a struggler.”
He also likes a bull with a soft coat and a “creamy look” under the leg.
These types of cattle also tend to muscle scan better and produce consistent top class beef, he says.
The Ports winter 540 cattle consisting of 220 cows, 100 bulls and 50 in-calf heifers. Robert says he tries to use as little drench as possible with none of the cattle drenched so far this year.
They also run about 900 ewes and finish all of their lambs including the rare ryeland sheep.
The first calves are born in mid-August and are weaned depending on how hard the season is with the cattle being weaned earlier in the tougher years and later when there is plenty of feed on hand.
They make their own silage, producing 900 bales last year, and break-feed the cows over the winter.
“Basically the system has been we take the cows to the back of the farm and break feed them forward so they are at a medium point when calving starts and we end up with the last of the calvers at the front of the farm,” he says.
The cows are also left with their calves and run in mobs on the farm and the young cattle are weaned late off their mothers. This allows calves to build up high parasite resistant levels and negate the need for drenching.
“My philosophy is that when they are on mum, you don’t need to drench them.”
Otorohanga beef finishers Lyn and Graeme Comins and son in law Stephen Weck buy hereford crossed calves from Bushy Downs’ dairy farmer clients.
The calves are bought at four days old and finished at about 500 kilograms.
Weck says they stick with farmer suppliers who have straight friesian herds to avoid jersey genetics. The calves are reared by Lyn on whole milk before switching to grass.
If it gets dry they get fed silage or chicory and do not use palm kernel.
“It goes against our thinking,” Graeme says.
High prices for dairy-beef calves are a reality of a healthy market and Lyn has watched four-day-old calves effectively double in price compared with last year.
Weck says rearing costs are largely unchanged and there is still a good margin for finished animals.
A stock agent for Farmlands, he says they buy weaner beef or dairy-beef cattle and grow grass for finishing. Feeding them properly to get a consistent animal is their biggest challenge.
“Growing them is the hardest but the most rewarding part of it.”
The supply of feed had to be consistent without any gaps to ensure animals grow evenly. Over winter they are fed a mix of feed crop and silage in the yards.
Once they reach 400-420kg, the cattle are drafted off and are fed grass and maize silage. The silage helps put weight on them and gives the meat good marbling. It allows the cattle to bulk up into their frames and grow a good “tabletop” of fat across the back.
“We try and get them up to 470-480kg – close to 500kg – and they seem to be yielding around that 52-54 per cent so you are getting that 250kg plus carcass weight.
“You could kill them now, but they won’t be 100 per cent,” Weck says.
The cattle are seldom weighed and Weck and Lyn rely on their eyes to judge when they are ready to leave.
“When they get that meat, it’s nicely finished and they have a bit of fat to work with and flavour. At the end of the day it’s feed – being fed consistently on a variety of feed – and finishing them with the grain makes the difference,” Weck says.
Having a pure grass system would still see the cattle grow, but the maize finished them faster and slightly better and allowed for a greater turnover of animals, he says.
The family won the Steak of Origin competition in 2004 and are one of the first suppliers of the Hereford Association’s quality assurance programme, Hereford Prime, which they supply to Magills Butchery in Te Awamutu.
Comins and Weck have never had a cattle carcass rejected for not reaching Hereford Prime’s specifications around pH, fat and meat colour, marbling and rib eye size. The criteria insists that the cattle are either purebred herefords or white faced hereford-friesian crossed cattle.
Magills Butchery’s Steve Derbyshire says colour is the most important attribute he looks for when cutting up a beef carcass.
It took him about 30 minutes to process a side of one of Comins and Weck’s beef carcasses into the different cuts used by chefs or bought by consumers.
“It’s a big thing. You can tell straight away, especially when you head down to the scotch and you’re getting a dark meat.”
That was a sign the meat had a high pH brought about by stress on the animal, he says.
The trend had shifted to more Americanised cuts of meat, particularly for cheaper cuts that are used for slow cooking.
In the past these cuts would have been minced or turned into sausages, he said.
Derbyshire says they use about 80-90 per cent of the carcass for slow and fast cooking and small goods.
“There’s not a lot that we throw away.”