Wagyu Fellowship study tour: what I thought I knew

The Wagyu Fellowship is about extending the industry’s knowledge – on how we breed, feed and improve the ultimate eating experience of Wagyu beef.

The 2018 recipient of the Fellowship, Jeremy Cooper of Cooper 8 Bulls, aims to discover if a ‘pathway’ can be established to optimise our production systems to achieve the stellar heights of A5 Wagyu seen in Japan.

As part of his investigation, Jeremy proposed to tour well-respected Australian Wagyu operations and feedlots and speak with leading Japanese researchers at Kyushu, Kyoto and Miyasaki Universities as well as conduct a study tour of production systems in the Miyazaki Prefecture. His findings in Japan both confirmed what he believed and busted myths of others.

The Kyoto Meat Market. Buyers view the specifications of the carcase and bid directly to purchase. This is A5 grade and sold at around $AUD32/kg.

The Kyoto Meat Market. Buyers view the specifications of the carcase and bid directly to purchase. This is A5 grade and sold at around $AUD32/kg.

 

“I always understood that Japanese Wagyu farmers held small holdings with at most, 20 cattle,” said Jeremy. “The care, empathy and love that goes into those cattle is something that cannot be replicated on a large-scale production system.

“Two observations came out of that – the first is that the level of animal husbandry given to those cattle may have a direct impact on the animal’s ability to thrive and therefore develop the high level of marbling.

“The second is that many of the small farmers do not collect carcase data. That data is available to the feedlotter, but not the breeder. It seems the farmer simply knows his cattle are good quality and that is the end of it.

Jeremy was granted a rare opportunity as part of his study tour to visit the Kyoto Meat Market.

Jeremy Cooper, 2018 Wagyu Fellowship recipient, on a study tour at Kyoto Meat Market with wife Carmen, and Bill Cornell ABS Global

Jeremy Cooper, 2018 Wagyu Fellowship recipient, on a study tour at Kyoto Meat Market with wife Carmen, and Bill Cornell ABS Global.

 

A state-of-the-art facility dedicated to processing Wagyu, the throughput is as little as 100 head per day. On questioning why so few cattle are processed compared to Australian facilities, the response was simply ‘we value the importance of Wagyu and honour the animals and the farmer’.

Tradition at the Kyoto Meat Market is also a strong element of the meat buyer’s decision. If the animal is less than 30 months old, it simply won’t sell as it is believed that Wagyu has not expressed its full marbling potential any younger. It would also appear that the gold standard A5 for grading is certainly well represented, but like any other beef market, lower marble scores still make a large portion of the beef available.

“I believed for years that Wagyu needed a special diet, but in a country that imports the bulk of its grain from Australia and the US, that means Japan is feeding much the same way we are. I also discovered that there is little uptake of genomics and carcase data, to improve Wagyu in Japan, it is primarily pedigree-based – and the cost for a small farmer is high to get it done. What I didn’t know is that it is only recently (1960s) that the Japanese government supported a program to increase fullblood genetics in Japan and 1989 when carcase data became available.”

Based on what Jeremy saw of the raising methods and commitment to animal husbandry, he believes there is a degree of transferable knowledge to Australian systems. Part of that is early intervention.

In Japan, weaning can occur anywhere from less than a week old to three months making the transition to grain, whereas in Australia, that may not occur until nine months old. Adding grain or starch before 200 days will kick start the adipocytes and get the marbling process going.

Jeremy’s ‘pathway’ has now been given a basis on which to test the theory:

  • Introduce creep feeding in the paddock from birth to get the calves used to the concept from an early age
  • Wean between three and six months, ideally at around four months
  • Introduce intensive feed regimes to bring them up to feedlot entry weight
  • Process at 24 – 30 months
  • Genomic testing from the beginning to identify the weaker outliers
  • Apply objective measurement for whole-of-life and analyse through BREEDPLAN

“I honestly think we can achieve A5 Wagyu in Australia by improved animal husbandry and understanding the data and by modifying the Japanese methods to our economies of scale.

“Obviously the theory needs to be tested and one way to do it would be to run two contemporary groups – one that is raised using current methods, the other using a modification aligned more closely to the Japanese system. With our ability to do objective measurement we can really assess which method has greater potential.

“There are a couple of Australian operators using a similar method to Japan, but it would be good to quantify the outcomes and really see if we can achieve the amazing marbling, and more often. We have got nothing to lose by doing this sort of investigation.”