Producing exceptional marbled beef with passion and experience
By William Sposato
Quality control is central to the success of any enterprise. But few face the complexities seen here in the green rolling hills of Eastern Australia where business success depends on the constant care and well-being of over 45,000 cattle spread across 50 square km.
The company is Marubeni subsidiary Rangers Valley Cattle Station, 1,000 meters above sea level in the New England Tablelands of New South Wales. The operation, purchased in 1988, is internationally known for producing some of the highest quality beef found anywhere, shipped to distributors, processors and high-end restaurants in more than 20 countries around the world.
The key to success in providing the highest quality beef is in raising the cattle in a comfortable and pristine environment that produces the high level of marbling that has made Japanese-style Wagyu beef famous around the world. Rangers Valley produces Wagyu Cross and 100% verified Black Angus beef.
“The beef market around the world is becoming very competitive. The one thing that Rangers Valley has on its side is years of making sure that we never compromise on producing a high-quality product,” says Managing Director Keith Howe.
Achieving this level of quality on a daily basis requires a wide range of professionals. At Rangers Valley there are more than 70 staff and contractors. In addition, the company works closely with the more than 400 breeders and backgrounders who provide the cattle at the right weight and age.
For Howe, an important part of the job is to take a direct role in the daily work of the operation. He regularly starts his days driving through some of the pastures to see that the cattle are doing well. By day’s end he can often be found at the historic original farmhouse, grilling steaks for visitors who include chefs from world-famous restaurants wanting to see the operation first hand.
“It’s a great opportunity to meet executive chefs from countries around the world to talk about the Rangers Valley product,” Howe says. “It’s also a bit stressful to prepare a steak with a Michelin-star chef looking over your shoulder.”
The high-quality results do not come by chance. The feed mix of wheat, barley, corn and other ingredients (but no growth hormones) is carefully composed to ensure a healthy weight gain. Patience is important since the cattle are on site at Rangers Valley for the better part of a year. Black Angus are kept for a minimum of 270 days while Wagyu are on site for at least 360 days. This helps to make the lives of the cattle comfortable and relaxed, an important factor both in terms of animal welfare and to ensure the highest-quality product.
It is also important to know each animal’s history and background. All the cattle have an electronic ear tag as part of Australia’s National Livestock Identification System. This ensures that Rangers Valley knows where all of its cattle have been throughout their lives.
“It’s really important for us to be able to verify where our cattle have come from,” says Sean McGee, Rangers Valley Feedlot Manager.
There are of course good business reasons to be able to monitor each animal, which can be worth up to A$4,000 (¥349,000). That means Howe and his team have around A$85 million (¥7.41 billion) in living — and mooing — inventory.
Everything about Rangers Valley is big. Each steer, weighing up to 800 kilograms, has the cow equivalent of a gourmet meal twice daily. This means Rangers Valley has to be ready with 400 tons of grain and other feed elements every single day (no breaks for the holidays).
“It’s a big process. Everybody has to get it right to make sure that everything here is spot on the money,” says Alex Smith, who runs the feed and milling operation.
With this many animals at one location, there are, of course, also environmental issues that need to be addressed on a daily basis.
Pens are cleaned regularly as part of the program to deal with what cows produce when they’ve been eating.
“For the manure that is produced, we run a harvesting program in which it is stockpiled, screened and then sold back to the farmers we work with as fertilizer for their crops,” explains McGee.
As part of the environmental program, water runoff is captured through a series of retention ponds so it can be re-used for irrigation, ensuring that nutrients do not reach local waterways.
Other measures include regular watering of the dirt roads and other areas to reduce the amount of dust.
One of the uncertainties in the business is that there is no way to know the level of success until each side of beef at the processing center is graded for the level of marbling, the color of the fat and the color of the meat. The higher the quality, the higher price that can be commanded on the market, up to A$250 (¥21,800) per kilo. Since the costs of production are roughly the same for each animal, higher quality meat translates into higher profitability.
To ensure this, nothing is left to chance. Like fine race horses, the pedigree of an animal is a key factor in the quality of meat that will be produced.
“We have a record of every animal we have purchased over the past 28 years,” says Gary Pavey, Manager of the Meat Division. “We have looked at how those cattle have performed, what producers they come from and the ones we need, we then target for future purchases,” he added.
What is next for Rangers Valley?
“I see a new chapter opening up. The opportunity to develop new brands and new products that are focused on the premium end of the market is clearly an opportunity for our business,” says Howe. “I see a fairly aggressive plan in growth rates in front of us.”
As part of the strategy, Rangers Valley is in the midst of a new product launch for four grades of Wagyu beef called WX.
“WX will be the new benchmark for Wagyu Cross beef. We aim to make it the meat of choice for accomplished chefs and home cooks who want to take their dishes to the next level,” says Marketing Manager Andrew Moore.
For Will Cowper head chef at the critically acclaimed Italian restaurant OTTO in nearby Brisbane, that is good news.
“Our customer feedback on Rangers Valley beef is amazing. Every time they walk out they say ‘Wow I've never tasted anything like it.’ The richness, the melt in your mouth quality. You can't get that at home.”