Ma trades up from balls to beef

Brad Thompson

A Chinese ball bearing magnate has snapped up vast tracts of prime cattle country in the Pilbara as he continues his love affair with WA agriculture.

Xingfa Ma is the new owner of Balfour Downs and the associated Wandanya pastoral lease covering about 639,500ha adjoining Hancock Prospecting's Roy Hill mining operations.

Mr Ma already owns the Ferngrove Wine Group based in the Great Southern and Emu Downs Station, which covers about 8000ha near Cervantes.

He is targeting demand for prime beef in China after setting up a supply and distribution network for quality WA wines.

It is understood Mr Ma paid about $18 million for the Balfour Downs operations through the Australian arm of his Tianma Bearing Group in a deal approved by the WA Cabinet.

Veteran pastoralist Don Hoar developed Balfour into one of WA's top cattle properties over the past 16 years. It boasts a herd of mainly Red Poll Brahman with about 13,000 breeding females, state-of-the-art cattle yards and a network of 35 dams and 55 bores, including one with 27km of pipe.

Ferngrove managing director Anthony Wilkes said the herd and infrastructure was outstanding. Mr Wilkes said Tianma was weighing up options for supplying beef to China, including live exports and processing in WA.

The Balfour management team will remain in place in the short term and cattle will continue to be moved south to Emu Downs for finishing under the operating model.

Mr Wilkes said while Mr Ma was happy to showcase WA's premium wines, steak, lamb, prawns and rock lobster as well as its relatively untouched environment, he preferred to keep a low profile on his frequent visits.

More than 100 Chinese food and wine distributors and restaurant owners have visited WA as Mr Ma's guests over the past 12 months. The latest group was cruising on the Swan River yesterday after dining on the finest WA produce at Ferngrove's headquarters near Frankland River on Tuesday.

Mr Ma has invested about $20 million in Ferngrove since 2011 and built a distribution network covering more than 60 retail outlets throughout China.

Mr Wilkes said Mr Ma was in WA agriculture for the long haul and appreciated the need to invest "patient capital".

"Mr Ma sees red wine and beef from WA and Australia as having significant opportunity with the emerging middle-class in China, but securing the right high-quality, premium supply that is consistent will be increasingly important," he said.