Wagyu is a breed of cattle which originates from Japan where it is revered for its unrivalled taste, tenderness and health benefits. Now one Yorkshire company wants to put it on our national menu too. Jennifer MacKenzie reports.
The Yorkshire Wagyu Company is now offering dairy farmers what it says is an all-round solution to creating an income from cross-bred dairy calves.
Wolds farmers Jonathan Shepherd and Jim Bloom have established one of the biggest Wagyu-cross and Wagyu full blood herds in the UK at Field House Farm, Tibthorpe, near Driffield.
As part of a contractual agreement, the company is selling full blood semen to milk producers, and buying the progeny back from two weeks to 18 months old for finishing and selling through its many outlets.
To encourage dairy farmers to use the beef breed, the company is discounting the semen at half price from farm-bred Wagyu bulls, and it is then buying back the progeny at a premium over the standard market liveweight price.
Both Jonathan and Jim are founder members and directors of the Wagyu Breeders Association, which was started in 2014 by a group of Wagyu breeders and enthusiasts from around the UK to promote British Wagyu beef.
Jonathan has been involved with the beef industry for 20 years and came across the Wagyu five years ago while looking for a sustainable beef business he could take from farm to fork.
So when he took a farm tenancy some eight years ago, the breed seemed to fit the bill and looked a good prospect for adding value to farm output.
“Wagyu beef is renowned for its eating qualities and it has health benefits as well,” explains Jonathan. “It is high in omega 3 and it has a third more omega 6 than other beef breeds, and although the beef has a higher fat content it is very high in mono-unsaturated (good) fat.”
Jonathan and Jim now have a herd of 20 full blood Wagyu cows at Field House Farm, which began with embryos imported from Australia three years ago.
“The Wagyu is well suited as a dairy cross sire as the breed is very fertile and easy calving with a short gestation period,” says Jonathan.
Jonathan Shepherd (pictured) and Jim Bloom have established one of the biggest Wagyu cross and Wagyu full blood herds in the UK at Field House Farm, Tibthorpe, near Driffield.
Semen straws are sold to farmers entering into the contract at £5 a straw. Currently, there are six dairy farmers involved with the scheme who receive a ‘significant’ price for the two-week-old calves, but more farmers are required. Currently, about 1000 head of calves are going through the system.
Lucerne is grown for rearing cattle, as it produces a natural protein and makes the operation more sustainable with home-produced fodder.
“The Wagyu and the Holstein- Friesian just seem to click in terms of producing enhanced marbling of the beef,” he adds.
“What is key for the dairy producer is getting the cow into full milk production and then getting her back in calf. The Wagyu-cross calf may not weigh as much or make as much money as a continental-cross calf, but there is often a price to pay for that in not getting the cow back in calf so quickly because of a difficult calving. The finished Wagyu’s premium is based on quality not weight.”
At present the Wagyu company is paying £180 per crossbred bull or heifer calf at two weeks old, and these are generally collected off the farm. They must weigh a minimum of 40kg and have been fed with adequate colostrum – 10% of their bodyweight within six hours of birth.
However, for producers who wish to use their own on-farm feed supply, the company will purchase the progeny at up to 18 months old at a 20p/kg premium over the current liveweight price.
“We would like to considerably expand the operation, but only by bringing the right people into the group who have an interest and want to buy into what we are doing.
“At the moment we are actively marketing the Wagyu beef brand and we have a database of 5000 potential customers across the UK from restaurants to butchers,” says Jonathan.
“However, if we get another 1000 cows onto the system now to produce Wagyu cross calves, we’re looking at those calves only entering the food chain in three years’ time when hopefully the demand will be there.
“To me the future of beef production lies within the dairy sector. I prefer to have a dairy-bred beef herd because they are milkier and easier to manage, particularly in terms of calving and staff issues.
Jonathan and Jim are actively marketing the Wagyu beef brand.
When the two-week-old calves arrive on-farm, they are BVD tested with no PIs accepted to maintain the health status.
Calves are overseen by the company’s in-house vet, Jono Cooper. He works four days a week and also works alongside the participating dairy farms. He is also closely monitoring the use of antibiotics.
At the rearing unit at Field House Farm the young calves are individually bucket reared using a pipeline system. They are introduced to a complete diet based on lucerne, grass silage and concentrate.
The growing unit is on Jim Bloom’s 400-acre farm where the cattle are taken to 450kg, and Andrew Foxton oversees the finishing unit at the former ADAS farm, High Mowthorpe, where the cattle are finished at 500- 530kg liveweight.
The Wagyu crosses are not pushed but allowed to grow slowly with the aim of a DLWG of 0.9-1.1kg to maintain eating quality.
Lucerne, a 22% protein crop, is grown for rearing the cattle, as this not only produces a natural protein from the legume but also makes the operation more sustainable with home-produced fodder.
Wagyus start laying down subcutaneous fat from 20 months old, so it is important to start the finishing process at this stage to encourage the marbling in the meat.
The Yorkshire Wagyu Company uses the Wagyu Breeders Association (WBA) Geno tagging system which has been pioneered by the WBA in conjunction with TL Biolabs and Caisley tags.
This tagging system takes a punch of skin from the animal’s ear as the tag is inserted. The punch of skin is then DNA tested so it can be verified as Wagyu and each animal will be issued with a certificate stating the auththenticity of its breeding.
There is no room for error with the system, as the tag which is inserted in the animal’s ear is already printed with the cow’s unique 12- digit identification number, as issued by the Government. The vial the punch of skin goes into is attached to the tag and is also printed with the same 12-digit number.
At the World Wagyu Conference in Australia last year, Dr Sally Lloyd, research director at the West Australia-based CY O’Connor (CYO) Foundation, explained the link between the low melting point of Wagyu beef fat and its health benefits.
At 33degC, the melting point of Wagyu fat is lower than the average of other breeds and also lower than body temperature, hence the melt in the mouth taste sensation you only get with Wagyu.
Dr Lloyd said a lower melting point delivers healthier beef with less saturated fats which has a positive effect on cholesterol, blood lipids and cardiovascular health.
Stockman Mike Heath looks after the younger calves on farm.
Calves are overseen by the company’s in-house vet Jono Cooper.