Lauril and Drew Stein’s names were synonymous with the Highland cattle and Simmental breeds in New Zealand from the 1980s to the late 2000s. They talked to Country-Wide deputy-editor and granddaughter Cheyenne Nicholson about one of their most ambitious ventures – to sell Highland beef through supermarkets.

In the early 1980s Lauril and Drew Stein bought 24 hectares of bare land.

Drew was then a senior executive with the Electricity Corporation of New Zealand (ECNZ), chairman of one of their major subsidiaries and chairman of CEPSI (The Asian and Chinese electricity industry association). He and his wife Lauril were keen to put down some roots after decades of moving all around the world for Drew’s work with the Mobil Corporation.

From the hustle and bustle of the United States to the cold of the Netherlands and even to the plains of Zambia, they chose the humble town of Carterton to settle.

Establishment of the farm took years. From putting in fencing, building sheds, cattleyards and the main house. During this time, they established their Simmental stud ‘Trossachs Simmentals’.

In the mid 1980s Drew bought Lauril three registered Highland cattle, two heifers and a bull.

“I bought them for Lauril as an anniversary present.”

Lauril and Drew Stein, at their home near Masterton, Wairarapa.

At the time, there was no breed society or herd register for Highlands in NZ, so they were registered with the Highland Cattle Society in Scotland.

All three animals could be traced back to the Queen’s Balmoral fold, as herds of Highlanders are known.

The Highlands were a good diversification for their Simmental stud and over the years the Highland fold grew.

Lauril says they took their bull Lochinvar to the Waiararapa A&P show and got a semi-joking remark from a judge.

“That the Steins had been smart to bring along a fluffy mascot to the showring to cheer on their Simmental cattle.”

Highlands are well known for their tasty meat. The meat is naturally high in iron, highly marbled and low in fat. Despite the premium qualities of the meat there was no recognition of this when it came to sending animals to the works.

“We decided that the only way to gain a premium that we felt the beef demanded was to process and sell it ourselves,” Drew says.

Unlike the United Kingdom where farm shops are plentiful, the regulations in NZ made the economics of the venture pointless for them.

Initially they wanted to open a farm shop on their home farm in Carterton. Farm shops were abundant in Europe but here the red tape and regulations weren’t worth it for the Steins.

“In my opinion it’s something that we really need to look at in NZ to enable more farmers to open up farm shops.”

So, it was back to the drawing board. The idea of approaching supermarkets and selling meat through them was the next move.

Drew and Lauril took in two partners and formed Highland Beef NZ Ltd.

“We took in partners to make sure we had a substantive herd to draw from so we were able to meet the carcase orders.”

They first approached their local New World in Carterton to find out how they could go about selling Highland beef through the supermarket.

After six months of meetings an agreement was made. Carterton New World agreed to an eight-week trial which commenced on January 27, 2003.

“We were initially wanting to use a local professional butcher to undertake the slaughter and butcher of the meat but part of the agreement with New World was that we used Preston Taylor works in Ngauranga Gorge with the carcases shipped to the New World butcher shop to make the cuts. Effectively all we had to do was the marketing side.”

Carcases went through stringent quality testing and had to be traceable from the time the animal left the farm to the time it arrived at the supermarket all packaged up.

“The trial weekly carcase order doubled, then tripled within the space of a few weeks. Customers were responding well to Highland beef and the demand really started to ramp up.”

A top restaurant in Wellington became a regular buyer of Highland beef and even compiled a special menu. Four weeks into the trial, rather than waiting for the trial to finish New World gave Highland Beef NZ approved supplier status, permitting the company to supply any New World throughout the country.

The start-up costs of getting Highland beef in supermarkets was hefty, although Lauril and Drew have long-since forgotten the figures they say after a time it became quite profitable with about a 30% premium being made selling through supermarkets.

“We had Highland beef in a number of New World supermarkets throughout the lower North Island and Hawke’s Bay regions. The supple line economics had to be refined and changes made to operational processes and procedures to enhance overall performance of the slaughter to delivery chain.”

This meant finding more animals to meet the demand. The company would purchase Highland heifers from other breeders in the region. All animals destined for supermarket shelves were kept on a specially leased block of land to keep them separate from the partners’ individual folds. At any one time they had a guaranteed 12-week supply.

Despite consumer demand, issues started to arise that would ultimately make the venture no longer viable.

“We started having issues sending horned animals to the works. They were only taking horned animals on certain days of the month. They had had issues in the past with horned animals doing some serious damage to the abattoir so were naturally a bit cautious.”

This prompted a decision to dehorn all the animals that were destined for supermarket shelves. Then animal welfare issues arose with dehorning animals. Highlands’ horns are both distinctive and an integral part to their anatomy being an inbuilt cooling system via heavy blood flows through the horns.

“Instead of dehorning them ourselves we had to get the vet in to do it to make the process easier on the animal, which was an added cost to the whole operation and basically took up all the margins that we made.”

Sourcing animals then became a difficult task. Part of their supply agreement with New World was that meat would be from animals of pureblood or P2 status.

“Highlands are graded according to the percent of pure Highland genetics they carry. You’ve got full bloods, P2, P1, A, B, C – when you get to C, you have a pretty watered-down version of a Highland.”

The Highland industry at the time was blossoming with an increased interest in the breed for commercial and lifestyle purposes. People were loath to sell their purebred animals for meat.

“We made the choice to shut everything down. Other regulations came in that hit us hard, I can’t remember now what they were, but it became more economical and easier to send them to the works even though we weren’t getting a premium for the quality meat. It was really the regulations and dehorning that stuffed it a bit. Everything finished in about 2006.”

Over this time Highlands had taken over their farm as their main breeding focus. They had gradually sold off many of their base Simmental herd to make room for more Highlands. At the height of their success with Highlands they gave what remained of their Simmental stud to their granddaughter Cheyenne who started her own stud ‘Tamara Simmentals’ at the age of 15. The Steins sold their entire Highland fold to another breeder in 2008.

Lauril and one of their Highland heifers before they left for the truck bound for Japan.

Scotland meets Japan

In the early 1990s Lauril Stein was approached by a stock agent who had the deal of the century for her.

“I’d lie if I told you his name now, but he had a client in Japan who wanted live Highlands to breed from. Another breeder from the South Island and I were approached for the deal,” Lauril says.

The Japanese buyer was keen to cross Highlands with Japanese wagyus.

The stock agent came, and selected animals based on the client’s requirements and took care of the entire deal from start to finish. Once selected the animals were sent to Auckland for quarantine and clipped before they went on the plane for the long-haul flight to Japan.

“They clipped them to make sure they didn’t overheat on the plane going over. All I had to do was sign the paperwork and put them on the truck.”

The one-off deal was lucrative. Although Lauril and the other breeder swore they would never tell anyone what they got paid, it was roughly three times what they would have got for selling the animals in the New Zealand market.

“It was a big thing as they were at that time the only Highlands to be exported from New Zealand.”

Lauril made newspaper headlines and shed a few tears at sending some of her beloved Highlands to another country.

Dad, is that you?

For the duration of their farming career the Steins enjoyed much success in the showring with their Simmentals and Highlands.

They owned the first Highland ever to win the coveted Meat and Wool Cup not once but multiple times. They made headlines around the world for proving paternity of one of their top bulls Laird of Trossachs through DNA testing.

Laird’s paternity needed to be proved before he could be registered. The only problem being his sire, Jaime of Huntroyd, was dead. Luckily, Lauril and Drew had kept Jamie’s head and had it stuffed and mounted.

Rotorua based company SignaGen were enlisted to do the DNA test. They had never tried to analyse tissue from a preserved animal before. It was a success and proved Jamie to be Laird’s sire. A photo of Laird meeting the stuffed head of his sire Jamie was in papers around the world.

A finger in many pies

To further promote the breed and help other breeders in the early 2000s Lauril and Drew started producing their own magazine. The Highland Fold News was created to give breeders and prospective breeders more information on the breed, tips and tricks of breeding and management of Highlands.

With an array of stories from around the world, onfarm profiles and in-depth stories on things like electric fencing set ups to animal health matters the magazine had a lot to offer – especially with articles titled “the saga of the shitty arse”.