In Australia it may be seen as sacrilege to eat a beloved poddy calf but an international business venture is being built on the idea that China consumers want to own Australian calves and follow them all the way through to their plate.
Working under the Rivergum Cattle brand, Geoff Kirkby, Kaysix, Bellata, alongside business partners, Michael Ford and Andrew Burley, Brisbane, has created a marketing strategy that Mr Kirkby said is all about “the story.”
“That's the main push behind it because China are now clean and green,” Mr Kirkby said.
“When you put a cow in front of them that they've owned from birth and watched it grow through, they love the idea.”
It may seem pie-in-the-sky stuff, but strong interest from two Chinese companies, Citigroup and Borderless Cattle, a part of the larger Borderless Healthcare Group, has seen the idea take off since its inception almost two years ago.
Through drone technology, some strategically placed GoPro cameras and the opportunity to visit their calf in the flesh, Mr Kirkby said Chinese consumers have the chance to experience the entire paddock to plate journey.
“The story will involve drone footage from calving right through to slaughter,” he said.
“We were trying to set it up so the people in China who buy the calf can actually fly the drone from their computer in Beijing. The technology's there already and we've had people from Brisbane and China say that it's possible, but CASA won't allow it.”
Tapping into high-end restaurants and China’s wealthiest consumers, Rivergum Cattle has found a niche market for their product.
Following the relaxation of China’s one child policy, a new demand for beef protein has opened up market opportunities with older women interested in high protein to boost fertility as they planned a second child.
For those who can afford to become members of the Borderless Healthcare Group, the opportunity exists to engage with various health professionals and chefs to utilise their cuts of meat.
Through a smart TV platform called Foodsmart.life, members can access recipes, conduct interactive cooking workshops with celebrity chefs from around the world and connect with nutritionists and health advisors, all from the comfort of their own home.
Despite the obvious concern that it might be weird to eat one’s ‘pet’, Mr Kirkby said the Chinese don’t see it that way.
“They want to see the slaughter and they want to see it hanging in the abattoir; they're interested in the whole process of it,” he said.
“You'll find the likes of a restaurant, where they'll buy one cow and of an evening there'll be syndicates that come in to purchase that cow and while they're sitting down of an afternoon drinking whatever they drink, they'll have a movie playing on the screen watching their cow. When the meat turns up, they have a celebration and eat it.”
Meeting the standards of this high-end niche market means just any old beast can’t be sent to China, and Mr Kirkby said they need to produce a quality product which keeps consumers coming back for more, time and time again.
Running 160 Herefords, in addition to a cropping operation, across 1800 hectares in north-west New South Wales, Mr Kirkby has made considerable investments over the years into breeding a quality product.
“I bought heifers off one of the leading Hereford studs that used to be, Courallie Herefords, and Roger and Jann Hann helped me along the way to get my breeding to where I wanted it,” he said.
“I could go and sell bulls tomorrow if I wanted to, but I'm not aiming at that.
“For the work that's gone in to getting us to where we are today, we can’t send them a poor product, otherwise it will all be gone.”
While Mr Kirkby said he would have gone down this marketing route with any breed of cattle, Herefords have always been the breed for choice for him.
“For us, they suit the country really well,” Mr Kirkby said.
“You have people who don’t like them, and everyone’s got their own opinion, but we like the softness and the way they taste.”
An idea is born
While going direct to the end user is something many producers would like to be able to do, making it a reality is a concept that doesn’t occur too often.
Sick of the amount of people in between the producer and the end user, Mr Kirkby set out to find a way to cut out the middle man.
“You see a lot of it in the grains industry especially, when you've got one person who is sitting in their office and all he owns is a computer and a phone, but takes $3 to $5 of your profit just for making a phone call,” he said.
“It just doesn't add up, so if I can jump the queue and deal with the end user and be on a personal level, I’ll give it my best shot.”
Conceived over a couple of beers almost two years ago with now-business-partners, Michael Ford and Andrew Burley, Mr Kirkby said they were getting closer every day to being fully operational.
And while the idea of cutting out the middle man as well as doing business with China has been met with much negativity, the trio is determined to make the business a long-term success.
Geoff Kirkby’s Herefords aren’t the only cattle to be involved in the Rivergum Cattle business, which markets beef to China.
The Rivergum brand is on the hunt for other producers to be involved in the niche marketing opportunity.
Mr Kirkby said when their trial shipment heads to China he hopes to include meat from a variety of breeds like Angus, Wagyu, Shorthorns and Charolais.
“Instead of sending a bulk lot of meat and they say they don't like it, we want to be able to say this is the range we have, what do you like?” he said.
“We've approached a few people now and we have producers at Guyra, NSW, and down in Victoria who want to be involved. There’s also a heap of people in this local region that are interested, and we’re even looking to grab some northern cattle.”