The island that drives Aussie Wagyu

01 Oct, 2014 02:00 AM
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John Hammond guides a mob of Wagyu across the sand bars and channels that separate Robbins Island from the Tasmanian mainland.
At low tide, with some coaxing and horsemanship, stock can be swum across the channels
John Hammond guides a mob of Wagyu across the sand bars and channels that separate Robbins Island from the Tasmanian mainland.

AUSTRALIAN cattle drives tend to be associated with red dust and flies, or mountain slopes and high plains, but flying sand and sea spray?

That’s the marine setting for a unique beef operation on the north-west tip of Tasmania, where the Hammond family runs Wagyu cattle on a 240-hectare mainland property at Montagu, and on adjacent 10,125-hectare Robbins Island and 700-hectare Walker Island.

The islands have been in the Hammond family since the early 1900s. Robbins Island is the largest freehold island in Australian territory.

Brothers John and Keith Hammond, with wives Rochelle and Lisa, are able to incorporate the islands into everday management of their 2000-breeder Wagyu herd because of a happy accident of topography.

The islands are only separated from the mainland, and from each other, by a system of sandbars and tidal channels. At low tide, with some coaxing and horsemanship, stock can be swum across the channels.

It’s a bit more complicated than the average paddock move, but also a lot more interesting.

Last weekend, John Hammond led a drive from the mainland property to Robbins Island.

For the 12-15 crossings the Hammonds do each year, Mr Hammond puts out a call to local horsemen and women for assistance. Usually, the rollup is enough to move stock with a comfortable ratio of one horse to 50 head of cattle.

But Sunday, the day of the drive, was the day after the AFL grand final and the resounding win by Tasmania’s adopted team, Hawthorn. It may or may not have been a coincidence that only women turned up for the drive, and only enough to run one horse per 100 cattle.

Despite that, and a howling nor’wester that kept the sea spray flying, the crossing went without a hitch.

Wagyu are an island cattle, and swimming seems to be in the same DNA as the breed’s famed marbling.

Betting on Wagyu

The Hammonds were among the earliest Australian entrants into the Wagyu business. When they chose to go with the breed 20 years ago, it was attracting a lot of scorn from cattle producers used to seeing 'quality' in a different light.

But John Hammond said due to lack of profitability in conventional beef production, the initial bet on Wagyu was also a bet on whether the family would stay in the farming business.

A lot of stars have since lined up to ensure they have stayed, producing purebred Wagyu, which has now extended into poll genetics.

Wagyu’s high-value niche in the beef supply chain has driven big investment in the breed.

Nearly all of the Hammond’s steer progeny is sold to The Australian Agricultural Company (AACo), the world’s largest Wagyu producer. The Hammonds’ heifers, after three years on grass, are processed for the family’s own brand, Robbins Island Wagyu.

In another fortunate accident of geography, the Hammonds’ cattle only need to be transported 30 kilometres to Smithton, the home of grassfed specialist processor Greenhams.

Demand for Wagyu is now so consistently strong that the Australian Wagyu Association is about to begin a recruiting drive for more producers.

“Demand for Wagyu product is increasing at a rapid rate, and that’s increasing the need for quality seedstock and commercial production,” said Graham Truscott, Wagyu Association chief executive.

“We need to get the production side right so we get the right article into the supply chain, so the Association will be available to help people who are looking to get into either seedstock or commercial Wagyu production.”

The Australian Wagyu Association conference is being held from October 10-12 at the Gold Coast. For more information phone (02) 6773 3138.

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FarmOnline
Matthew Cawood

Matthew Cawood

is the national science and environment writer for Fairfax Agricultural Media

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