It has been a leap of faith introducing the Wagyu breed into their business, but it is a gamble which has paid off. Will Prichard and Rob Cumine have proved rearing grass-fed Wagyu in Wales can be done successfully – and now they are turning their attention to Hong Kong. Sheila Coleman finds out more.
Exporting Asian beef to Asia may sound akin to carrying coals to Newcastle, but for one Welsh beef venture, it’s just the next chapter in its fast-developing story.
The Natural Wagyu enterprise brings together modern genetics and IT systems, all set against the stunning backdrop of the Pembrokeshire countryside.
Highly prized by top chefs and served by some of the best restaurants in the world, Wagyu beef is famed for its intense marbling – so much so, the meat is graded by it. Pure-bred Wagyu beef with the highest score of nine can sell for more than £300 per kilo.
Dairy farmer Will Prichard vividly remembers how a social evening with his old friend Rob Cumine turned into the start of a new business.
Friends since their Young Farmers Club days, Will and Rob’s careers had taken them on different paths around the world – Will as a Nuffield scholar, and Rob by working for a major Australian retailer. But the pair have joined forces and pooled their livestock and corporate expertise to create a beef enterprise which Will says brings ‘the best of the Orient to mix with our Celtic grasses’.
It was farmer and agri-food consultant Rob who first took an interest in the breed – which hails from Japan – buying a bull and a cow on a whim after seeing an advert in Farmers Guardian.
But while popular abroad, especially in Australia, where Wagyu are predominantly used to improve commercial beef quality, it was still early days for the breed in the UK.
Visiting Australia, Rob learnt more about Wagyu genetics and how well it worked as a dairy cross. He knew it had potential in the UK market and persuaded Will to join him.
“I had my first taste of Wagyu beef at a meal at Rob’s house,” recalls Will. “He had been in my ear saying how great this Wagyu beef was – and it was incredible.
“It is very, very different to normal beef, and as the wine went down so the conversation turned to the bull Rob had. The next day it was in with 30 Friesians at our place.”
Will is the third generation to farm at Escalwen, Letterston, near Fishguard, milking 1,000 cows on three units – two autumn block calved units and one spring calved unit.
But the potential threat posed by TB restrictions in West Wales led him to consider reverting to his grandfather’s original dairy and beef enterprise model, and he already had established a small herd of Hereford cattle.
As with any new business there are risks and, for Will and Rob, the main one has been how to make what is virtually a new breed to the UK a sustainable enterprise.
Their answer has been to undertake the marketing themselves, but at the same time sticking to their philosophy of keeping it simple and running a business which has required little or no capital expenditure.
Rob, who also runs agri-food business consultancy Clearview Farming, says: “So many people go down the route of thinking they have to do everything themselves, but we work with others so we can do other things too.”
This is illustrated by the fact initially the pair were able to run Natural Wagyu while thousands of miles apart – in Wales and Australia, as Rob had moved there with work.
“It was well set up, I would do invoicing and allocating products to stores overnight from Melbourne and Will was on the ground in Pembrokeshire. We’d catch up on Skype, and we always had someone overlooking production.
“The IT systems and processes we had in place made it pretty easy.”
So far, the only key investment has been having a professional video made which tells the Natural Wagyu story, a move the pair believes brings their business to life.
Both are directors of Natural Wagyu and see their respective skills as not just complementary, but interchangeable. They like to think they are bridging the gap between agriculture and the marketplace, with Rob’s commercial expertise being particularly useful when meeting with retailers.
Today there are around 700 Natural Wagyu cattle on various units around the locality. All the Friesian heifers are served by a Wagyu bull, producing youngstock they describe as fine-boned and which make for very easy calving and live-weights at birth between 24-34 kilos.
“It is not a fast process. Cattle do not normally marble until 22 months, and we slaughter at 30-36 months with a finishing weight around 300 kilos.
“We are not looking for huge growth rates, and the cattle will disappoint when you are looking at them, but what we are looking for is that moment when you put that piece of meat in your mouth,” says Rob. “You cannot use traditional stock-judging skills – you have got to rely completely on the data. The animal might look pretty ordinary, but that is the one you need.”
Will says another core business challenge is starting over again and changing what they know about the beef industry.
“The animal husbandry is identical to normal beef production, but with Wagyu there is a risk element as you do not really know if you have done a good job until it is slaughtered.”
The detail is very much in the data. Using Australian genetics information, where unlike the UK vital points are collected for eating quality, Will and Rob have carefully selected their sires from premium Australian Wagyu breeders.
There is a 30-strong nucleus herd in Victoria, Australia – the embryos from which are implanted into the heifers in Wales to form the basis of Natural Wagyu’s stock bulls.
“They are a pretty easy-going, docile breed and used to close contact with humans,” says Rob.
“They are tough, reasonably adaptable and will stand a fair amount of conditions.”
The cattle graze the fields for a minimum 210 days a year and are fed grass silage during the winter to keep up the energy levels which produce the all-important marbling, with Rob and Will aiming for a score of four to five.
Currently, an average of four animals are processed every Wednesday where they are slaughtered at the Cig Calon Cymru abattoir in Cross Hands before being processed close-by at Celtica Foods – part of wholesaler Castell Howell Foods.
At Celtica’s butchery, state-of-the-art equipment ensures consistency of portion size, which also negates the need for different sized packaging. By the end of this year, Will and Rob aim to be processing five cattle per week.
Natural Wagyu’s market is predominantly in London, where a variety of its Wagyu steaks are sold in grocery chain Whole Food Market’s stores. They retail for around £18 for a fillet, sirloin or ribeye steak and £10-11 for a rump or flat iron steak. Wagyu burgers are also sold through Castell Howell to restaurants and catering establishments in Wales.
Meeting consumers in London while sampling in store has been an eye-opener for Will, and the smell of the beef cooking is a crowd-puller. It’s an experience he feels would benefit many farmers.
“I think every farmer should be made to talk to consumers in the middle of London. I was gobsmacked they were telling me the difference between white and yellow fat. But they knew far less about cooking the meat.”
Currently working with five other dairy farms, Will and Rob would like to bring more Pembrokeshire dairy farms into the Natural Wagyu fold and establish a producer group.
“We’re not interested in trading cattle or becoming dealers. We want to work with like-minded people. We would provide the genetics and marketing using Cloud-based farm management software to view it as almost one farm.”
It is an exciting time for Natural Wagyu and they recently agreed a long-term contract to supply meat for premium burgers in the UK, and earlier this month the company stepped into the export market.
The reception Natural Wagyu beef receives in Hong Kong will certainly be one of the company’s biggest tests to date.
“It’s a toe in the water for us. This first shipment is cuts from one animal,” says Rob. “But if it goes to plan it will be every other week. And if they think it any good in Hong Kong then we must be on to something real.”
Natural Wagyu is also involved with a Pembroke-based initiative, donating calves for rearing to the Green Links Community Interest Company – an initiative that provides skills training and work experience programmes for young people and adults.
The Green Links Center is located in the grounds of Pembroke School, in an area with high levels of social deprivation.
There is a broad range of training courses and workshops on offer, including BTEC level 2 in Agriculture.