A LIFE-CHANGING farm accident has spawned an innovative beef business for Queensland cattle producer Rob Cook.
In January this year, Rob and his wife Sarah opened the MSA-licensed paddock-to- plate butcher shop Tender Sprouted Meats selling MSA-graded beef raised on barley sprouts.
The new business comes not even 10 years after their lives changed forever on September 30, 2008.
While mustering at his family's Northern Territory cattle property Suplejack, Rob was a passenger in a helicopter crash that left him paralysed from the shoulders down.
The former champion bull rider spent three months on life support at the Adelaide Hospital and another seven in rehab.
In 2009 Rob, his wife Sarah and their two boys Braxton (now 10) and Lawson (now 8) returned to Suplejack, where Rob's mum, dad and three siblings still live.
But it was difficult to find full-time carers willing to move to the NT's most remote cattle station.
So the family of four packed up the gooseneck and hit the road in search of greener pastures.
Ten months of travelling around Australia searching for their new home led them to central Queensland.
Aside from the flat, open, irrigated country, found just 30km west of Bundaberg, the Nuffield Scholar said he and Sarah were drawn to Werribee as they saw the potential for an "intensive cattle finishing operation”.
"Sarah and I were always aware of drought so we aimed to safeguard our business by minimising the risk,” Rob said.
"We had been using a Fodder Solutions barley sprouting unit in the Territory so we saw the potential for this new venture.”
Today Rob uses the MSA Index to guide his feeding regime, which leads to beef that ultimately lines the shelves of his Bundaberg butcher shop.
"Becoming MSA-accredited had nothing to do with the premium... though that is nice,” Rob joked.
"I'm a big believer in you can only manage what you measure. If we were going to start retailing our own beef we needed the full picture.
"I know how to raise cattle on grass but what you see in the paddock and what you receive on the plate can often be deceiving. By adding the sprout feeding regime, we can control daily weight gains at different stages of development because we noticed the huge impact this has on eating quality (and index scores).
"Being exclusively grass-fed, marbling is our final hurdle so we're looking at using genetics to prop us up in that area.”
The sprouting shed produces about 1.5 tonnes of barley sprouts/day.
With 100 head consuming about 15kg/day, Rob's cost of production sits at about 12c/kg.
Rob's feed mixture generally includes 1.5 tonnes of barley sprouts, hay, mineralised molasses, molasses, cotton seed meal and sweet potatoes.
The Cooks' 730 head are run across three properties at Bucca, Gin Gin and Agnes Water.
The Agnes Water block is home to about 400 breeders.
Calves are moved to Cabbage Tree at Gin Gin for weaning and backgrounding, before moving to Werribee when they reach about 350kg for finishing.
At Werribee, the 100 head herd will rotationally graze in small 3ha cells for four to five days at a time.
Cattle are handled in a low-stress environment and loaded in yards purpose-built to be controlled via a joystick, enabling Rob to work the race and crush.
"(MSA licensed processor) Biggenden Meatworks, who process (and MSA grade) three to four bodies a week for us, have been fantastic to deal with and their system allows us to correlate our NLIS tag with the body kill number, giving us complete traceability,” Rob said.
"That way all the butcher shop needs to do is ring me up and say 'I've got body number 856', and I can look it up and we can tell that customer everything about the animal.”
Rob's MSA Index scores average about 59-60, with tenderness being their top priority.
As well as standing by the quality of their in-house dry-aged meat backed by the MSA Index, Rob said the barley sprout-based diet gave the meat a "rich nutty flavour”.
"There was never a time where I thought we'd get out of cattle,” Rob said.
"I fought pretty hard those first few months just to stay alive, but then I fought the next four years to get back in the beef industry.
"This was never in the too hard basket, it's what we know and love. Without Sarah by my side, none of this would be possible.”
To predict the potential impact of production changes on your scores visit the MSA Index calculator http://www.mymsa.com.au/msamobile/.
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