Dairy farmers, calf rearers, growers and beef finishers are all benefiting from a scheme to increase the amount of Wagyu beef on offer to British consumers.
For the last three years, Warrendale Wagyu based near Pocklington, East Yorkshire, has been recruiting an ever expanding network of farmers as part of its Wagyu beef scheme.
They can be involved in as many parts of the supply chain as they wish, but generally dairy farmers are supplied with Waygu semen, then sell the subsequent calves to rearers at two to four weeks old, although some keep them through this stage.
At three to four months of age, the calves are sold to growers, who keep them until they about 19-21 months of age, when they go to finishers. The finished cattle are sold back to Warrendale with farmers paid on a deadweight basis.
Jamie Brownrigg, production manager for Warrendale explains more: “At every stage the farmer is guaranteed how much they will be paid for the animal, which gives security of knowing there is an outlet for it and allows them to plan cash flow.”
The Wagyu genetics are sourced from Delta Wagyu International which gives the company control over the choice of bulls. These are Japanese Black and mainly selected on their marbling score.
Dairy farmers are paid a fixed price for their calves. After this stage, price is determined by weight. There is an additional bonus available to the dairy farmer once the animal is killed.
Mr Brownrigg says: “This is another incentive for them to do everything right to make sure the calf has a good start in life, helping to ensure it reaches the slaughter stage.
“The dairy cows involved are predominantly Holstein with some Friesians and Montbeliarde. This works for us because we want cattle with frame and Holstein beef does have marbling and is very under rated, so crossed with Wagyu, it works really well.
“The cattle need to be fed a cereal-based ration in the finishing stages to achieve the correct degree of marbling. An independent nutritionist liaises with the finishers on diet formulation to make sure they all are all being fed in a similar way to give us consistency in the end product.”
Currently around 25 of the Wagyu crosses are being slaughtered each week, but this is increasing as the number of calves on the ground grows.
The company has its own cutting plant and butchers in Yorkshire and has an online shop but also sells to wholesalers, independent retailers and top end restaurants, as well as Waitrose and Aldi.
In addition to the standard Wagyu beef there are other brands being developed such as olive fed Wagyu and Lakeland Wagyu.
Farmers usually join the scheme by word of mouth, although there is now a waiting list.
Mr Brownrigg says: “We find that farmers will often join up with neighbours or people they know to form their own groups and organise things amongst themselves. This works well for us as we like to keep the number of miles moved between holdings down.”
Dairy farmer, Richard Gibson, farms with his father, James and brother, John, near Penrith, Cumbria, milking 400 Holsteins through robots. They have been members of the Wagyu scheme for about three years.
He says: “It is working well for us. They are very easy calving and no different to rear than any other calf. We take them through to about 150kg, when they go onto the grower and they are worth more than a conventional calf at the same stage, plus the slaughter premium is an added bonus.
“Knowing what we will be paid for them and the fact we have a guaranteed outlet allows us to plan ahead.”
Joanne Hall, farms with her father, John, mother, Mary and aunt, Elizabeth, running 1,500 ewes, and historically, a large suckler herd, near Dalston, Cumbria, but is now focusing on growing on Wagyu stores.
She says: “We had always run a lot of suckler cows, but this is wet farm and they were very damaging to the ground which meant less grass for sheep and we were having to house them for longer periods which is expensive in terms of feed and labour.”
The suckler herd is now being phased about and replaced with Wagyu crosses.
Ms Hall says: “We take about 15 a month at three to four months old when they are around 150kg and keep them until they are 19 months old and around 470-500kg when they go to a finisher.
“This means they get a season at grass and when inside are fed a TMR of silage and blend. They achieve a daily liveweight gain of at least 1kg a day or 0.75-0.95kg at grass.
“They are much lighter on the ground than the cows and they are really docile and easy to deal with which is an added bonus.”
Tom Stead who, with his family, runs a mixed farm with arable, chickens, cattle and sheep near Thirsk, North Yorkshire, has been rearing Wagyu cross calves for about three years and is involved in both the rearing and finishing aspects of the supply chain.
He says: “We take 30-35 calves a week at two weeks old from a dairy farm in Lancashire and rear them in batches of 120 in converted poultry sheds.
“We sell them to a grower four miles away at around four months of age and then buy them back at 19-20 months old to finish at 650-700kg.
“We do not have the grass to grow them on ourselves so, but doing it this way fits in with our system and means we can utilise home-grown cereals and forage.
“We are self-sufficient, apart from a bit of protein and feed an ad-lib TMR formulated by a nutritionist based on our forage analysis.
“The Wagyu crosses have a DLW gain of 1.2-1.3kg, so are not the fastest finishers. Knowing how much we are going to be paid for the cattle means that we can budget and plan ahead a takes away the uncertainly usually associated with finishing cattle.”