WHEN Charles Hanna and family purchased the 2428 hectare (6000 acre) Colly Creek and Plainview aggregation near Willow Tree in August 2005 he had a desire to breed top quality beef for the restaurant market.
Four years later he secured the Willow Tree Hotel and reinvigorated the tiny town with a high end dining experience using dry age beef production in a way no one had seen before.
Not only did Colly Creek Pastoral Company begin breeding, growing and feeding their own beef, the dry ageing and butchering was then front and centre of the restaurant, Graze at the Willow Tree Inn.
"While dry ageing has been around for a long time and butchers have been dry ageing beef, it was quite new to bring it in house to a restaurant at the time so we did a lot of research," Charles' son, Sam Hanna said.
"A lot of the information at the time came from top restaurants in the US that were dry ageing beef in-house."
Colly Creek currently runs a reduced herd of about 600 Angus breeders.
On acquiring the property, a herd of mostly European cattle were included and the first five years was spent developing core breeders.
Now, calves are weaned and backgrounded on oats until they are grown out at 350 to 400 kilograms. They then enter a 600 head feedlot and are put on feed for 150 days to be finished.
While only about 20 to 25 head are required for the restaurant each month, all cattle are sent to Wingham for processing.
Rib sets, rump, loin and some butts from the top animals are sent to the restaurant where they are dry aged for 35 to 45 days in one of two custom dry age rooms that are set at optimum conditions of 1C to 2C and 70 to 75 per cent relative humidity.
Unlike most butchers and wholesalers, the meat is dry aged in whole sets with in-house butcher Peter Robinson cutting the meat fresh on site at the start of each week.
During dry ageing, the meat develops a protective 'crust' of bacteria aimed at concentrating flavour. This is removed by Mr Robinson.
"You have got to cut all that black edge off the side because it's a bit like jerky...and it is a bit harder to cut because there is no moisture," he said.
"It's got to have the fat cover. If it hasn't got the fat cover, the dry age can go too far in. When you take the fat off to cut around the edges you want to still have the muscle there."
Not only has the Colly Creek team worked on refining their animal preparation to ensure the right amount of fat and weight on the carcase, Mr Hanna had even trialled dry ageing lengths up to 90 days. However, they found the best combination of eating quality and yield was around 35 days.
He said more people were now looking for the traditional form of meat preparation.
"Traditionally dry aging was used before refrigeration as a way of holding meat over for extended periods," he said.
"It was done in a meat room where the crust would preserve it. We now have the technology to dry age at the perfect conditions for a consistent quality. A lot of people know and love dry age beef, for others it's new and it's certainly growing in popularity. Once tried, you have a greater appreciation for its eating quality in terms of tenderness and flavour".
A balancing act
Colly Creek Pastoral Company manager James Thibault took over the reigns in 2017 with a firm focus to build marbling standards within their Angus herd using genetics.
Traditionally focused on growth traits, Mr Thibault wanted to establish a balance between both growth and meat eating qualities, including marbling and eye muscle area, without forgoing maternal characteristics.
Marbling is not only important to the flavour standards of dry age beef products, but has major benefits to an eating experience.
"What we are finding is it's hard to marble any animal at a milk tooth stage and we want to get the cattle into the feedlot at a certain weight and out of the feedlot at a certain weight, which is specific to get the right cut of meat on the plate," Mr Thibault said.
"By getting better marbling genetics into them what we aim in doing is getting that feeding earlier.
"We are able to get that higher marbling score in younger cattle rather than waiting until they are a two tooth because generally in any feeding system you have got to wait until mature age...they will lay on fat at any age but they wont marble until they hit that maturity.
"What we are trying to do is move that marbling further forward in their life cycle to a milk tooth stage and get better marbling results at that milk tooth stage, which will provide the right size steak and better quality meat."
Colly Creek have started purchasing Te Mania blood Angus heifers, renowned for their high marbling genetics, and have already started to notice an improvement.
"We are getting more of those animals that we are breeding now in to the top bracket and that runs across all the animals that go through the feedlot," Mr Thibault said.
"We are getting a higher percentage of those in the top bracket and they are nearly one to two marble score better each time.
"We do aim to get that two marble score plus. We have been getting up to six."
Mr Thibault regularly monitors grading feedback from their processor while liaising with Graze chefs to retain herd performance in not just the restaurant bound animals.
"Hopefully down the track with the ones that don't come back to the pub, you hope we are going to be one step ahead of those other operations in terms of getting paid for quality," he said.
In order to breed a constant and consistent supply of beef to Graze, joining is staggered.
Heifers are joined for six weeks with planned autumn, early spring and late spring calvings. Additional females are joined for 10 to 12 weeks.