Growing and preserving high quality forage is central to the success of an innovative Yorkshire enterprise rearing and finishing Wagyu beef.
When Jonathan Shepherd was faced with redundancy and the sale of the herd he had managed for over 10 years, he confronted his disappointment, seized the opportunity and planned how he’d build a business to safeguard his family’s future.
He says: “When you come to a junction in life, you have to decide what to pursue and either do it as best you can or do something else.”
And so it was that after the sale of the herd on the Warter Estate near Driffield in East Yorkshire in 2008, Mr Shepherd began the process of transforming himself from manager to owner, starting with just 25 cows, which were purchased with the commission he made by sourcing cattle for buyers at the dispersal, and building a farming business.
Today, less than seven years after the sale, his business runs from nine different premises totalling around 600 acres (243ha) across the Yorkshire Wolds and not only comprises a suckler herd of 200 head and a dairy calf-rearing business, but also includes an embryonic herd of full-blood Wagyu cattle and one of the UK’s largest rearing and finishing enterprises of Wagyu beef.
Late last year he played a pivotal role in launching the Wagyu Beef Association in the UK and his Wagyu beef can already be found on supermarket shelves. Next month he launches his own Wagyu website, branded the Yorkshire Wagyu Company, one of the earliest to market Wagyu beef direct to the UK consumer.
Reaching this point has been a step-by-step process, starting with modest beginnings, building a solid base, and requiring plenty of vision and foresight along the way.
“I started with suckler beef production as I could see the advantages. Although they don’t generate a huge amount of income, they have the ability to create an asset base.
“I think that’s underrated and as a tenant farmer, the first thing my accountant asks me is ‘what is the value of your cattle’, as this can be used as collateral for running the business.
“However, I knew I would have to do something else that would generate income on a monthly basis, so we started rearing and finishing black and white bulls on contract.”
Once the two core components of the business were up and running, the next idea to be hatched was to bring Wagyu beef into the mix.
With links to local dairy farms already established and a deep-rooted knowledge of beef production, the idea of sourcing and finishing a Wagyu/dairy cross seemed a logical progression.
Underlying Mr Shepherd’s enthusiasm to branch into Wagyu was his concern that the mainstream beef industry was providing a highly variable product to a declining market.
“I enjoy eating beef but whenever we ate out, I felt the quality was inconsistent. At the same time, beef consumption has stagnated and we have to ask ourselves why, which I think is because of the variable quality.”
Having discussed the Wagyu business with both ‘a retailer and a processor’, he became convinced of the consistently superior eating experience that could be achieved from the Wagyu/dairy cross.
“The Wagyu breed is capable of a high level of marbling which adds significantly to the taste and texture,” says Mr Shepherd. “It is so highly prized in its native Japan that at one time, Kobe beef – which is Wagyu reared to a particular tradition – was only made available for the Emperor to eat.”
To most people’s surprise he says the Wagyu ‘just clicks’ with the dairy breeds, producing a succulent, buttery type of beef which is increasingly prized and is sold at a premium by restaurants and retailers.
However, he says producers have to acclimatise to poorer carcase grades.
He says: “It’s turning everything on its head. Farmers struggle to accept the poorer gradings on the EUROP scale as we are looking at eating quality more than carcase yield.”
Acquiring his first Wagyu stock via embryos from Australia where he believes the breed has made its greatest genetic progress, he is developing his own nucleus herd of full-blood females and has breeding sires in AI.
Contracting dairy farmers in the area to use his bloodlines and return the cross-bred calves to his various rearing units in the Driffield area, he has now built up numbers to around 1,500 head.
“I have just gathered up grasses and shed tenancies to accommodate cattle and grow their feed wherever I can, describing, for example, the tenancy at Field House Farm near Tibthorpe, at the centre of his operation, initially comprising just 13 acres and 20,000 square feet of buildings, although this has since been expanded.
“We are lucky in that we are surrounded by professional businessmen who aren’t interested in cattle. This has created an advantage for us as we have been able to rent marginal land, often in the Wolds valleys with their shallow, limestone soils.”
On this land he has become adept at growing high quality cattle feed, producing 150 acres (61ha) of grass, 160 acres (65ha) of lucerne, 110 acres (45ha) of maize, with the remainder used for grazing.
“We only grow what we use for our stock. I have learnt over the years that if you want to produce a premium product, you have to start with the right feed, and forage is a big part of that.”
To this end, he has sought to make the most consistent and stable silage he can and, in consultation with forage preservation specialists, Kelvin Cave, he has opted to use a silage preservative rather than a more traditional additive or bacterial inoculant.
Michael Carpenter from Kelvin Cave says: “The product Jonathan has chosen contains human food-grade preservatives. These include sodium nitrite which kills harmful bacteria, and sodium benzoate and potassium sorbate, which are the only commonly used preservatives proven to eliminate the activity of moulds without compromising fermentation.”
Mr Shepherd says: “I considered a variety of options, and finally opted for this one. Although it’s more expensive I can see the benefits. We have quite a wide clamp face which takes about five days to cross and the last thing we need is deterioration at the face.
“If you go to the effort of making high quality silage you have to make sure it is stable.
Using the preservative on all grass and maize silage and this year asking his contractor to apply it to baled lucerne silage as well. He says: “I can see such a marked difference in quality that I feel justified in using it on all forages.”
Using his forages in a total mixed ration, which has been carefully formulated with bespoke minerals for each stage of growth (see table), he is delighted with the Wagyus’ performance and their finishing weights despite the slightly lower growth rates which are inevitable with the breed.
“Now my job is to convince more farmers to supply Wagyu cross calves and to get out into the market and sell the product. Selling to restaurants is a big part of the plan, and we will offer a box scheme through the website and there’ll be catering trailers and a gourmet burger van at shows and events this year.
“Wagyu will always be a niche product but I’m convinced it is here to stay. Other breeds have been ‘the next big thing’, but they have come and gone.”
In Japan he says the Wagyu is a national treasure; maybe one day it could gain the same revered status here in the UK.
Wagyu calf and youngstock feed
Wagyu growing ration
Wagyu finishing ration