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Weekly Times – Quality, not price, the key to Col McMicking’s paddock to plate venture from Tarwin Lower to Ashburton

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BUYING a butcher’s shop to create a paddock-to-plate experience has allowed one beef farmer to have his finger in more than one pie.

Col McMicking and his wife, Julie, were always keen to see how they could sell their meat and found the perfect opportunity in 2007 when a butcher shop in Ashburton, in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs, came up for sale.

The Tarwin Lower producers supply the shop with their own grass-fed beef label, Gippsland Pure Beef, and source grass-fed lamb from Radfords abattoir.

They also stock free range chicken and Otway branded pork.

Before the McMickings bought the shop they were selling their cattle through the saleyards or direct to Woolworths and Coles.

But Col encourages beef producers to think outside the square so they can survive in the industry, saying his own shop allows him to run a sustainable enterprise.

“We thought Ashburton was a good location for the shop because at the time it was classed as the centre of Melbourne and we’re able to draw customers from Glen Iris, Malvern, Waverly and Surrey Hills,” he said.

“Looking at the demographic, there are a lot of young families who are meat and three-veg eaters, so we’ve been able to establish solid, returning business.

“Promoting paddock to plate and the quality of the produce has really paid dividends for us because consumers are interested in knowing where their meat comes from.”

The McMickings buy between 150 and 200 steers a year to meet their butchr shop requirements, in the 250-300kg weight range and aim to grow them out to 440-450kg.

“Our steers are purchased from the saleyards at Leongatha, Pakenham or Bairnsdale at about 16-20 months of age and we fatten them on pasture,” Col said.

“We aim to achieve a carcass weight of 240-250kg with 5-10 mm of fat at the rib.

“The steers are slaughtered each week at Radfords abattoir in Warragul where they are put through the Meat Standards Australia grading system.”

Col said MSA grading was beneficial program for a paddock-to-plate enterprise because it guaranteed eating quality.

So how does a butcher shop like Col’s compete with supermarket giants like Coles and Woolworths?

Having a different mentality that isn’t driven by price alone is the key.

Col said the hanging method is a really important part of the process.

Carcasses from Col’s farm are processed using the tender strength method by Radfords abattoir.

“A carcass is traditionally hung by the heel, the Achilles tendon, but a tender stretch carcass is hung either from the pelvic bone or through the ligament that runs down the back or over the tail of the animal,” he explained.

“This technique improves meat tenderness by preventing muscle shortening and improves MSA grading scores.”

Aside from flavour, it’s also the two-way street between farmers and retailers that sets the shop apart from the supermarket giants.

Just recently, Col’s butcher’s shop manager bought into the business and now owns 50 per cent of the outlet.

“We’ve got two full-time butchers and three casuals at the shop and the butchers have learned about the farming side from me and I’ve learned about the retail side from their point of view,” Col said.

“If a bloke comes in and wants a steak, a good thick one, we’re there to cut the thickness they want and not be driven by price.

“We don’t want that supermarket mentality in the strip shop.

“So we’re getting the traditional meat eater back not because their doctor tells them to eat meat but because they really like the experience.”

Col said presentation and interaction were other factors that allowed the shop to stand out.

“We refurbished the shop last October and put some generic farm shots up as well as a map that shows where Tarwin Lower is in relation to Melbourne,” he said.

“This type of information has been well worth providing and has been really well received by the customers.

“We’re also big on interacting with our customers and giving them advice and inspiration for meals.

“I’ve always said the sooner supermarkets put a floor person in charge of their meat division it will make a difference to customers.”

When it comes to the future of the beef industry, Col said it was important for farmers to get more exposure in the metropolitan media.

“Sometimes when new people come in to the shop and they’re finding out why our meat is different, they can’t believe I own the farm,” he said.

“They just think it comes out of box, so I do think some reconnecting with the country that needs to be done.

“But in saying that, most people in the city have either friends or family in the country and they love coming here, which is why our roads are busy on the weekends.”