Having spent some time working in the 7,000ha of cropland, I've made the transition to the vast mass of cattle which are situated here in Goonoo and make up the feedlot segment of this amazing place. The weeks seem to roll into one another as yet again the scale, the machines and the day-to-day running of such a large operation never ceases to amaze me.
The stock total in Goonoo is approximately 30,000. This staggering total encompasses cattle in the feedlot, in transition cells and cattle grazing grass and alternative forage. The predominant breed in Goonoo is Wagyu. This breed is originally from Japan.
Wagyus are genetically predisposed to intense marbling and produce a high proportion of unsaturated fat as part of their carcase breakdown. They are also popular due to their quiet temperament, easing calving and high fertility levels. Their resistance to bovine respiratory disease is of particular importance in feedlot production systems.
From breeding station to feedlot
At Goonoo, no cattle are actually bred on site. Breeding takes place at other AACo stations, primarily in the Northern Territory. Goonoo and Aronui are the two feedlots, both situated in Queensland, which finish the majority of the stock bred from those station setups.
A large proportion of the feedlot are crossbred Wagyus. The aim is to finish this class of cattle within 300 days on site, with a daily live-weight gain of approximately 1kg. This equates roughly to a 700kg liveweight carcase and an approximate 400kg dead-weight carcase at the desired 57% kill-out.
The desired slaughter age from the feedlot is between 18 months and two years. However, purebred Wagyus are finished on a 500-day ration in order to maximise marbling.
In the first stage in the process to slaughter at Goonoo, all stock are inducted before entering the feedlot. Any animal under 380kg will not enter the feedlot but return to cell pens (outdoor feeding areas) or alternative forage until at the desired weight. Any animals due to enter the feedlot are weighed, vaccinated, ear-tagged, DNA tested and their mouth formation recorded.
Pen riding is carried out every morning for a number of hours. Workers check all pens on horseback. All animals are scoured, and ensured to be in good health. Any sick or lame animals are removed from normal to hospital pens for treatment.
Ration tracked by computer
The feeding regime for the vast number of cattle as one can imagine is extremely large in scale. There are six main ration compositions being fed according to pen requirement and stage of production.
The cattle are fed twice daily, 40% in the morning and 60% in the afternoon. The first feed is dropped by three feed trucks at 8.45am every day, aiming to be finished feeding by 3.30pm. These are essentially trucks with diet feeders as the body of the truck.
Every kilo of feed from loader to truck to pen is accounted for using an internal computer programme. This ensures the correct ration and ration quantity is given daily to the desired pen.
Despite being located only two hours from Rockhampton, the beef capital of Australia, no stock from Goonoo are processed there. Rockhampton caters largely for Brahman-type animals which are indicative of the region at large. Bigger, stronger Wagyu animals cannot be processed in the same facility.
AACo also have their own processing facility in Darwin in the Northern Territory. However, this is an extremely long journey from Goonoo. Instead, all finished stock at Goonoo are killed in a factory located ten hours to the south.
It is called a "custom kill", whereby AACo retains ownership of the meat despite using an alternative processing facility. This allows the company to market the beef independently.
Wagyu beef must have a minimum of 8ml of fat surrounding any primer, and a maximum of 25ml. In the factory, each Wagyu is given a marbling score from one to nine. This differs greatly to Ireland where farmers are penalised for over-fat animals, reflecting breed, market and consumer differences.
Renowned for its intense marbling and flavour, Wagyu beef commands a price premium and this is reflected in the markets it serves. Traditional Asian markets such as Japan, Korea and China continue to purchase Wagyu beef, but new markets such as Singapore and the USA have also began to buy this meat. High-end restaurants in cities such as London, Tokyo, Singapore and Hong Kong are also purchasers of this product.
Time to leave
My time in Goonoo is soon drawing to a close. From the moment I set foot off the propeller plane in Emerald, the landscape, the wildlife and the agriculture here has been a completely new and exciting experience for me.
In terms of Irish agriculture, it has become obvious to me that we can never compete with our Australian counterparts in terms of scale. The vast areas populated by roaming cattle, the hectares upon hectares of crops and the seismic scale of this feedlot emphasise our need as Irish producers to focus on quality over quantity.
I will depart from Goonoo shortly, but I know that when I look back on this experience in years to come, a flood of positive memories will flow back to me. Through all the workers in Goonoo and by immersing myself in the scale of central Queensland, I have an entirely new outlook on agriculture.
I know this experience will stand me in good stead in my pursuit of a career in the agricultural industry.
James Meade is an agricultural science student at UCD and travels on the professional work experience programme supported by the Irish Farmers Journal and the Agricultural Science Association.