When Welsh dairy farmer Will Prichard got invited to dinner at his friend’s house he had no idea it would open up a new market for his dairy beef enterprise.
But after taking one bite of Rob Cumine’s Wagyu steak he immediately decided to take a ‘punt’ and put two of Rob’s bulls in with 40 of his dairy heifers.
“It was really on the back of eating a great streak and the promise they would be easy calving. That was the selling point at the time,” explains Mr Prichard.
Amazed by the ease of calving, Mr Prichard and Mr Cumine then embarked on a project to see if they could finish Wagyu crossbred cattle off grass.
See also: Wagyu breed society launched
Little did they know that their three-year ‘experiment’ would turn into a booming beef business and last month (19 October) they launched their ‘Natural Wagyu’ range in Whole Foods, Kensington, London.
Originally from Japan, the Wagyu is revered for its incredibly high level of fat marbling. The breed isn’t a brand-new concept to the UK – the British Wagyu Society launched last year and there are already a handful of farmers producing Wagyu beef.
Facts about Wagyu beef:
- Wagyu means ‘cow’ in Japanese
- The beef contains a higher percentage of mono-unsaturated fats and Omega 3 and 6 fatty acids
But it is certainly a novelty to see a Wagyu beef animal roaming the rolling hills of Pembrokeshire. It is what gives their brand, Natural Wagyu, its unique selling point. Most commercial Wagyu enterprises fatten cattle in feedlots, but at Escalwen they are fed grass and forage.
“We are producing a product that has a different flavour profile, because they are fed grass,” explains Mr Cumine, who established a small pedigree herd of Wagyu cattle at his family farm in Pembrokeshire after seeing an advert in the paper.
“I called the seller and bought 10 cows and a bull, not really knowing much about them,” he explains.
Mr Cumine now supplies Mr Prichard with pedigree bulls to use within his 1,300-cow dairy herd. Previously, Mr Prichard used sexed semen on the heifers and Herefords as sweeper bulls, but to cope with rapidly expanding markets he will be using Wagyu only on his heifers this year.
Wagyu bulls are also used as sweepers on dairy cows for three weeks, following a six-week AI programme.
Rearing mimics the black and white policy, with calves kept in pens of 10, where they are fed waste milk up until 12 weeks of age.
The dairy operates two spring and two autumn herds. Spring-born calves are turned out to grass and the autumn-born ones are kept indoors, where they are offered grass silage.
Animals are grazed from February to October and through the winter are fed grass silage and 1kg of concentrate a head a day to maintain growth rates.
Animals are weighed monthly and are achieving about 0.8kg/day from birth, which is the optimum, explains Mr Cumine.
He says if animals are fattened too quickly it can have a negative effect on the marbling quality of the meat. Consistent growth is key and for this reason growth rates are monitored each month.
“Compensatory growth is actually negative, because it puts down globules of fat in the meat,” explains Mr Prichard.
Cattle are killed at between 28 and 36 months of age at Cig Calon, Cross Hands, with an average conformation of 0+, and a fat class of 4H. The beef is then deboned and packed at Celtica in Cross Hands before been dispatched to customers.
Mr Prichard says the ‘sweet spot’ for both steers and heifers is between 330kg and 340kg deadweight.
He says because of the poor conformation of the Wagyu animals it wouldn’t pay to sell them at liveweight at market or deadweight because they don’t fit with the EUROP grid specification.
“It is more about taste difference. Because they are slow growing the meat is more tender [than other breeds]. The value to the customer is the eating experience. It is the moment you put it in your mouth. It is that first bite,” he explains.
The pair say this is forcing them to be “retail-focused” and set clearly defined breeding goals to ensure the beef they produce lives up to the eating quality expectations of their niche target market.
“Genetics is the most important factor, almost. You have to wait three years to kill an animal to get a view of a bull so we are working really hard to use the best bulls possible,” says Mr Cumine.
This has been aided by a relocation to Melbourne, Australia, where Mr Cumine now works as agriculture manager for the supermarket chain Coles and where he is able to get his hands on some of the best Wagyu genetics available worldwide.
More recently he has been sourcing genetics from the Australian Agricultural Company – the country’s largest elite Wagyu breeder – which runs a herd of 4,000 cows. They finish 30,000 head of Wagyu cattle each year on company-owned and external feedlots and only breed from the best 10% of bulls on their breeding programme.
“I started up a small nucleus herd in Victoria and we’ve been sending embryos and semen back to Wales,” adds Mr Cumine.
Within the pedigree herds and the commercial cattle they are recording reams of data that is fed back into the breeding programme.
“Gestation length and calving are a given and we measure growth rates, meat yields and marbling scores and are breeding from the best performing bulls,” explains Mr Cumine.
“When you are dealing with Wagyu you can’t go on eye. You have to trust the numbers. It takes EBVs to a whole new level,” explains Mr Prichard.
As up to five bulls are run with 100 cows, DNA testing is done within the dairy herd to work out parentage.
See also: Wagyu DNA tag
After slaughter the pH of the meat is measured using a pH meter and must be below 5.7. The carcass is also H bone-hung to improve tenderness, particularly of the rump. It then matures for 14 days on the bone and a minimum of 21 days before been packed for customers.
“The thing we are working on at the moment is marbling scores. We have our own set of cards we use to grade the meat, but our ultimate goal is to come up with a way to remove the human element to give customers complete confidence.”
There is already technology in Japan that scores the marbling using a computer, adds Mr Cumine.
Currently, marbling scores of Natural Wagyu beef are averaging score five (on a one to nine scale, with nine being the best). Considering cattle are reared on grass and are not being pushed with concentrates, it is a very good score, says Mr Cumine.
Not being able to sell Wagyu animals at market has been a driver for developing a market.
“It has forced us to put a lot of effort into finding customers. I have got the land and cows and Rob has got an amazing black book full of contacts in retail, so it has been about bringing those two together,” admits Mr Pritchard.
“We spoke to a lot of people and have given away a lot of Wagyu steaks to get to this point,” adds Mr Cumine.
Whole Foods is their first supermarket contract, but the duo already supply a plethora of local restaurants and food outlets in west Wales with steaks and premium burgers.
While the aim for the future is to grow the business, the pair concedes they have to be realistic about what they are able to achieve currently.
“Managing a supply chain is really about managing expectations too,” says Mr Cumine.
Currently they are only supplying two beasts a week to Whole Foods, where steaks retail for around £10, but they hope securing a weekly contract will open up new avenues.
“Because we now have weekly volumes there will be gastropubs and restaurants we can approach. If you haven’t got readily available volumes weekly people just don’t want to know.”
And as demand grows so will the need to build their supply chain, they say.
“The maximum the business could supply is 10 animals a week, so we are looking for farmers to get involved in the project and more customers to give us the confidence to invest in the supply chain,” adds Mr Prichard.