Wagyu is first new breed society in more than 25 years

The launch of the British Wagyu Association sees the first new UK breed society in more than 25 years.

Wagyu farmers in the UK could soon benefit from a co-ordinated approach to breed development and marketing, following the launch of a new breed association.

The breed is a relative newcomer and is globally famous for being a high quality product, commanding premiums 50% or more over conventional beef.

But up to now, Wagyu farmers haven’t had the benefits of having a society like other breeds in the UK.

See also: More unusual markets help drive beef export growth

Mike Tucker, Gloucestershire Wagyu farmer and director of the association said that he wanted the UK to be part of the best research and development in the world.

“We want to bring the benefits to the UK,” he said. “Genomics are racing ahead and we need to be part of that.”

Breeding benefits

Australia is the largest country producer outside Japan and Rob Cumine, who is a buyer for Australian retailer Coles and is a partner in a Welsh Wagyu herd highlighted some of the breeding work.

“Breeders were not buying into new bulls and there was a trend to go back to old sires.”

Issues for the association to consider

  • Marbling score – there is no official system in the UK
  • Maintaining breed integrity – DNA testing and database
  • Labelling and definition

This led to a project to develop EBVs using real carcass data and incorporating genomics, in order to identify new high performing sires.

The project looked at more than 3,000 carcass records (15 different measures, including percentage marbling and pH), 2,100 camera images of carcasses with more detailed assessment of marbling and 2,147 genotypes.

Bulls were re-ranked and some of the older ones did not do as well while some newer ones rose up. The second stage will see further refinement over the next five years, he said.

Marketing

The society also aims to promote British Wagyu beef. Mr Tucker sees a role for a chefs education programme to help promote the meat and increase sales.

Association has five directors, each of whom has made an interest-free loan to pump prime the WBA, working together with a company secretary. The Limousin society will run the bureau service (Breedplan), but the association will remain independent.

Mr Tucker said that by next spring, the aim is to have a strategic plan including how to manage registration.

In the meantime, he urged interested farmers to join and get involved to help shape the association, so they get the benefits. To join, there is a one off £200 charge plus an annual £100 fee.

Farmer wishing to join or get more information can visit the association website

Wagyu breed – facts and figures

  • The breed originated in Japan and were used as draft animals. They were selected for their physical endurance which favoured animals with more marbling, which provided a readily available source of energy.
  •  It is a naturally horned breed with either a red or black coat colour.
  •  British Cattle Movement Service figures show there were 2,691 Wagyu-sired calves born in the UK in 2013.
  • They are easy calving and are renowned for their docile nature.
  • Bulls can be used to improve the eating quality of crosses.

Why use Wagyu?

UK Wagyu production ranges from pure-bred cattle destined for high end retailers and restaurants in London to Holstein crosses for more mainstream retailers.

Jonathan Shepherd manages 200ha of grass, 44ha of maize and 20ha of lucerne on a rented farm near Tibthorpe in East Yorkshire. He runs a 250-head suckler herd and also has a separate, small pedigree Wagyu herd.

“Wagyu adds value, producing a premium product, which is valuable given that we don’t receive any Single Farm Payment,” he said.

He has developed a system in partnership with four dairy farms, using semen on dairy cows producing Wagyu crossbreds.

Dairy farms benefit from using high fertility semen/bulls and their short gestation period of 270 days. “Whether it is a high yielding herd or a New Zealand style system, they have all seen a 5% benefit in conception rates.”

He sees three different approaches to finishing Wagyu cattle, but opted for the middle approach finishing on lucerne and maize silage, as he is not targeting high end London restaurants and retailers, which command  the highest premiums.

Three different systems for finishing Wagyu cattle

Suitable for System Duration (months) Liveweight (kg) Marbling score
F1 cross Intensive 16 280 4-5
F1/F2 Forage based 24-26 350 6-8
Pure Long feed 30-36 400 9+

Calves arrive at two weeks old and are fed milk powder and weaned two weeks later than conventional calves. From weaning to six months, they receive a 16% protein blend.

They then go on a forage-based diet for 12 months to build up the frame, before being finished. He is currently producing 25 a week to supply retailers.

At the other end is Martine Chapman of Highland Wagyu (and director of the association), who has the largest Wagyu herd in the UK, running to about 500 head near Dunblane. This includes fullblood Wagyu, F1s, F2s and also surrogates. 

“We have just started slaughtering the first of our Wagyu F1’s which is 50% Wagyu and 50% Aberdeen Angus, or as I fondly like to call them, ‘Wangus’. These we slaughter once they reach 27 months and so far they have been what we would call a marbling score of 7.”

She is targeting premium London markets, slaughtering fullblood Wagyu once they reach three years and they have been achieving a marbling score of 9.  

“Chefs want British Wagyu and there is insufficient to meet demand. They instead have to use Australian Wagyu.”

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