How Wagyu beef scheme gives farmers stability

Growing demand for Wagyu beef has resulted in the formation of a unique business model, which sees dairy farmers, rearers and finishers paid a guaranteed price for breeding and finishing Wagyu cross dairy animals.

The aim of Warrendale Wagyu is to produce consistent, grass-reared animals until 22 months that are then finished on grain by about 25-28 months.

The system works on a transparent price matrix based on the growth of the animals, regardless of market price.

About the scheme

Warrendale Wagyu was established in July last year by Jim Bloom, who runs Warrendale Farms in East Yorkshire.

After seeing the demand for Wagyu beef rise in the UK, he decided that rather than let market demand be fulfilled by imports, he would invest in Wagyu genetics and supply the home market himself.

After almost a year in business, he has more than 100 farms signed up – 50 dairy producers and 50 growers, rearers and finishers.

See also: Beef farm targets five herd KPIs to help cut costs

The current operation slaughters 10 animals a week, mainly for the London market. But the aim is to grow the business steadily with a projected 40 calves being slaughtered a week in 28 months’ time.

The breed

Dairy cross Wagyu was the breed of choice because of the consistency of the product and the fat-to-meat ratio, explains Jamie Brownrigg, Warrendale Wagyu’s production director.

“The dairy herd has a tight genetics pool compared with beef breeds, and they are renowned for growing frame. The Holstein also helps slow down the maturity and has a natural marbling ability that complements the Wagyu,” he says.

The company owns a series of top Wagyu bulls in Australia, which have been bred to produce the best marbled beef. Peppermill Grove is one of their main sires, with marbling EBVs in the top 1% of the Australian Full-blood Terminal Index (FTI).

How the system works

Dairy farmers signing up to the scheme buy the semen at a similar price to that of dairy semen. All dairy cross Wagyu calves are then bought back at a guaranteed price agreed at the start.

Farmers cover all costs and are paid on a price per kilo basis, with an average £2.25p/kg paid across the animal’s life. Farmers have to pay for one-way haulage, with most opting to move the cattle themselves.

“We are essentially asking farmers to grow cattle and be paid for the weight they put on,” says Mr Brownrigg.

“We try to keep everything local and then connect dairy farmers with the local rearers and the same with growers and finishers. We have created local hubs, with the largest in Cumbria, Lancashire, Yorkshire and Shropshire.”

When a calf is born, the dairy farmer has to register the birth on a dedicated online portal called Beef Herd.

This allows Warrendale Wagyu to see what calves have been born and gives a forecast of how many animals will be finished and when.

The dairy farmer is responsible for producing a calf with high health. It must be vaccinated for BVD, IBR and pneumonia to reduce the risk of mortality throughout its life. Bull calves must be castrated and all animals dehorned.

Warrendale Wagyu is also introducing DNA and EID tags, Mr Brownrigg says.

“Our biggest worry is food fraud, which is why we are introducing DNA tags as a compulsory measure for our farmers.

“This means we can prove parentage. We are hoping the EID tags will make it easier for our farmers to measure and monitor the weights of stock and eventually this will be linked into our Beef Herd system and BCMS [the British Cattle Movement Service],” he says.

Once a dairy farm has calves ready to move, the farmer contacts Warrendale Wagyu and a local rearer is sourced. The dairy farmer transports the calves to the rearer, where they are weighed on arrival. The same process happens between the rearer, grower and finisher.

Farmer benefits

The main benefit to the farmer is knowing the price they are going to be paid for the end product, irrespective of market prices, which removes much of the risk, says Mr Brownrigg.

“Dairy farmers also like it because they have a fine frame, making them very easy calving, allowing cows to enter milk production as soon as possible.

“They also have a placid temperament, which is great from a health-and-safety point of view,” he adds.

Dairy farmer case study: George Fabi, Kirkbarrow Farms, Askham, Cumbria

Farm facts

  • 315 pedigree Holsteins
  • Averaging 9,700 litres
  • 25% of cows put in calf to Wagyu
  • Rearing 70 Wagyu calves a year to five months old (130-150kg)

Cumbrian dairy farmer George Fabi has been putting the bottom 25% of his cows in calf to Wagyu for almost a year now.

He used to use British Blue, but was getting calving problems, which would then lead to problems such as metritis and fertility issues.

Any animals he does not wish to breed replacements from, or any cows that are not in calf after two attempts with sexed semen, are put in calf to Wagyu.

Dairy cross beef calves would traditionally have been sold at Carlisle Auction, but Mr Fabi admits it was a hassle and there was no guaranteed price.

“To take cattle to auction is a day out of my time. Putting the cows in calf to Wagyu has removed my calving issues, as they just slip out, and I know exactly what I am getting for my calves at the start. It just fits into my system nicely.”

Mr Fabi milks 315 Holstein cows averaging 9,700 litres a year, with milk sold to Arla. He rears calves until they are five months old, weighing 130-150kg on average, before moving them to a rearer/grower unit.

Calves are reared in individual pens for five weeks before being mixed into small groups. They are fed on milk, ad-lib cake and haylage until 10-12 weeks, when they are weaned off the milk.

“I haven’t had to change my system and I’m now getting a guaranteed price for my calves,” he says.

Mr Fabi batches animals that are ready to be moved off the farm and transports them to the rearer/grower. He doesn’t keep the animals for finishing due to restricted space on his farm.

All calves are vaccinated against pneumonia and all male calves are castrated, so they can be run as mixed-sex groups.

Rearer/grower case study: Tom Stobart, Croglin High Hall Farm, Croglin, Cumbria

Farm facts

  • 174m above sea level
  • 100 dairy cross Wagyu
  • 1,000 Swaledales and Texel Mules
  • Wagyu grazing 12ha, split into cells

Tom Stobart has been rearing Wagyu cattle on grass since the start of the year. He has 100 dairy cross Wagyu, with most of the calves supplied by Mr Fabi.

Farming with his brother James, Tom was buying cattle at six months old and selling them on as stores.

Although they are still doing essentially the same thing, they are getting a guaranteed price by working with Warrendale Wagyu.

When cattle arrive on the farm at about five months old they are housed inside for a few weeks and transitioned to a grass-based diet of silage before being turned out three to four weeks later.

The cattle are then run on a cell-grazing system. They are stocked at 1,800kg of beef/ha, although stocking rates are currently at 2,200kg/ha due to rapid grass growth.

On the farm, 12.5ha is split into 0.07ha cells, with a 78-head batch of cattle grazing two cells each day.

Cattle are weighed every month and the aim is to average a growth rate of 0.8kg a day over the growing period. Mr Stobart says some growth rates have been in excess of 1.6kg/day.

Stock is housed in cubicles for four months over winter and fed silage. Some of the yearlings are outwintered on kale and bales.

The Stobarts take the cattle up to 22 months and aim for a weight of 500-550kg. They are then moved to a finishing unit, where they go onto a grain-based diet.