Wagyu in the United Kingdom by Sophia Ashe .
Hello, my name is Sophia and 4 years ago I stumbled across Wagyu and became addicted to all things related to the breed. How it all started I was offered a job by Mike Tucker to work for a few months (during my University placement period) on his small Wagyu farm in South-West England. You may have heard of Mike, since he started up the British Wagyu Breeders Association in 2014. I knew Mike but much to my regret never got to know him well seeing as he tragically passed away 2 weeks before I was to start my job. Unfortunately, as an old-school farmer Mike took everything about the herd’s genetics, breeding and bloodlines with him. He kept a remarkable amount of information in his head and the information he did manage to write down would either be on the back of a delivery note from the vets or on the cardboard box the replacement eartags came in.
Therefore, a large chunk of my work revolved around genetic investigation: sitting down and sifting through all of Mike’s notebooks, the cattle passports, movement records, old emails – the entire lot in attempt to find AI details, pedigree names and everything else. You could say I became a sort of ‘Wagyu Detective’. Funnily enough it was this “accidental” part of my job that sparked an enormous interest in me. When I wasn’t out with the cattle, on the tractor or delivering beef boxes I was sat in the office looking through all this information and going online to research dams and sires.
Eventually, after a couple of months of investigation I was able to provide the family tree of all the Wagyus in the herd as far back as available information permitted. This then escalated further, into the selection of the best cows and bulls to breed from in the future in order to get the best calf with the best quality beef. It was absolutely fascinating and as a result I based my University Honours dissertation on subject, investigating the importance of the bull’s marbling-related EBVs and how this impacts the offspring’s meat (including when crossbred) and the consumer’s preference. (Link to my study at the bottom, for anyone interested).
Overview of British Wagyu
The number of Wagyu breeders across the UK is steadily increasing, with a portion of this growth coming from an increased demand for Wagyu genetics by the dairy industry. Why? It’s largely due to dairies seeking to add value to their dairy calves and thus looking at crossbreeding their standard HolsteinFreisian cows with a Wagyu bull. That simple. As a result, a lot more “Wagyu” is appearing on market shelves, including supermarkets however despite these products being legally allowed to be labelled as Wagyu, it’s more than obvious that your pack of 4 burgers for £5 is not going to be pure Wagyu. Evidently, the beef used is Wagyu F1, or maybe even F2 or F3. This, to a degree, is good as it is broadening the consumer’s awareness of Wagyu and some may even look into what it is and research the breed. However, one of the drawbacks is that in order to achieve a premium on their product, farmers aren’t really having to go that extra mile to create a *proper* piece of Wagyu beef. In fact, I’d say most breeders here cross their Wagyus mostly with Angus or Herefords, only really providing purebloods and fullbloods to a very niche selection of consumers, obviously paying a far superior premium. I wouldn’t say this is necessarily a bad thing, and Hereford and Angus F1 crosses produce very good carcasses with great tasting beef. Even more so, the UK is very conscious of rearing livestock on a natural, grassfed diet meaning crossing Wagyus with these conventional breeds increases the chances of good rates of growth from grass, with just about enough infiltration of fat for the beef to be identifiable as something other than just Angus, Hereford or Limousin, for example. On the other hand, I will also criticize that a few farmers have thought “hey, let’s get some Wagyu genetics running in the herd and sell the beef at a premium price” and, honestly, approaching this breed from that angle doesn’t really do much, for you or the perception of the beef. I think a number of farmers think that by using Wagyu genetics in their herd they would miraculously get more tender, marbled beef and are then shocked that the beef is pretty much the same as what you get from commercial breeds. The animal is fathered by a basic Wagyu bull and is produced from grazing rough pastures, and yet they simply cannot think why they haven’t got an A5 carcass. Dare I assume these are the breeders supplying the beef to the supermarkets for “Wagyu” burgers. For those desperately seeking a ‘Kobe’ experience however, this sort of consumer may be tempted towards a high-end London restaurant, or may even wander down to Harrods to select their own beef from a choice of Australian Wagyu, fetching £350/kg for striploin, or authentic Kobe at a staggering £600/kg for the same cut. That put into context means for an 8 ounce steak (270 grams) you would be paying £80 and £136, respectively... for a single steak. The British Wagyu Breeders Association is small but as the number of breeders and herd sizes in the UK increase, so is the association. However, it is still too small to run its own genomics testing so relies on the Australian Wagyu Association to publish EBVs and animal data through Breedplan. This meaning, all British registered animals appear on the Australian Wagyu Association because the British Association doesn’t have its own equivalent service. I’ve seen a big push towards using a good bull within some herds, with farmers becoming more aware of the importance of this in achieving better carcass traits, however I do wonder if generally the dam genetics are often overlooked. The top-quality producers will likely have a herd containing a top quality Tajima or Akaushi bull with a handful of high-class cows to go with them but those just starting or not aiming for the higher market will settle for a good bull to cover their Wagyu cows. “What are the cows’ bloodlines? Don’t know, but they’re Wagyu so that will do”.
Why the fear of aiming high?
So, if Wagyus are becoming more popular, why aren’t all breeders making a big investment to achieve the best genetics and working hard to nourish with the best quality feeds? Well, I feel I could narrow it down to 5 possible scenarios, which all
If you place a pale, highly-marbled piece of meat in front of someone who hasn’t a clue what Wagyu is, they probably wouldn’t even dare to touch it. For a long time, pale meat has been associated with calves being raised in dark barns for veal, therefore triggering the assumption that pale meat = an unhappy, sickly animal. Add a load of pearly white fat into the mix and this is a consumer’s idea of hell. I’ve even seen this myself selling Wagyu beef on a stand at a Christmas market – a few people will take a look at the meat and say, “nope, far too fatty for me”. After the Second World War when sugar consumption began increasing, fat was blamed for being the cause of many diseases including diabetes and obesity. Traditional Hereford and Angus herds depleted due to consumers rejecting the meat with a higher fat content. Instead, continental breeds such as Limousins and Charollais began infiltrating the British markets and with their lean meat these breeds took preference over meat with a higher fat content (this is why Traditional Aberdeen Angus and Herefords are both on the UK’s endangered animal watchlist. Although these breeds are recognised worldwide, the original traditional bloodlines are in extreme peril of extinction and breeders are dedicating themselves to keeping them alive). Sadly, the “fat is bad” movement is still very much in place today. It’s quite fun to watch the minds of these people boggle when you explain to them that the low melting point of this creamy, buttery fat is due to the high oleic acid content, which is in fact good for you and your heart’s health. Then of course there are those who simply don’t like fatty, greasy food and if that’s the case then Wagyu is not for you.
2 – £££
Linking nicely with the problem above, why would someone pay £60/kg for beef when you can get it at the supermarket or even your local butcher for a fraction of the price? There are of course some people with bigger pockets who would appreciate a good joint of Wagyu beef to serve at a fancy dinner party, or would be happy to pay high prices to eat top grade beef at a restaurant. However, these consumers are few and far between. Then, there is the production cost at farm level. First, there is the investment in genetics (as discussed above) and then the feed costs on top of that. Nutrition and diet to achieve tender, marbled beef is complex and if you want to produce the best you can’t just grow your own oats, roll them and feed them to your stock. That could be part of the feeding regime, but not it entirely. Feed mills can offer bespoke made-to-order blends so you can decide what you want in your feed in what proportions and even the vitamin and mineral content, but this unsurprisingly comes at a high price. When production costs are high, you have got to sell your product at a higher price to cover this and when you have a limited customer base in which to sell this to, here again you have a problem.
3 – Food Trends
In the UK, there is huge pressure on farmers to produce sustainable, ecofriendly meat in a massive emerging movement called “regenerative agriculture”. This is feeding as much of a grass and forage based diet as possible (or in some instances 100% grass and forage), utilising grazing systems in such a way to enhance the natural environment and limit damage to grassland ecosystems and soil health. A lot of the UK public is very aware of this and will actively choose grass-fed meat where possible. Therefore, presenting them with a piece of meat from an animal which has been pumped with grain in the last few months of its life is not often well received. Feedlots are not common practice in the UK and intensive fattening units are not well perceived by consumers who are becoming more and more conscious of how their food is produced. Some consumers will even disagree with finishing animals in a barn for 3 months, even if throughout the rest of their life they have lived in a field. It is possible to produce Wagyu on a solely grass-based system but the result is not especially unique. The meat is darker, often firmer and much less fat with an orange/yellow tinge due to the carotenoids in the grass. How then can you justify marking your product with a higher price tag just because it’s Wagyu if you can get a good piece of Angus beef of a similar or better grade for a much lower price? All of this makes top class Wagyu a very tricky market to play in.
4 – Burgers
The number of pubs and restaurants offering Wagyu burgers is on the rise. Where I worked on Mike Tucker’s farm I was delivering burgers to 10 different pubs and restaurants within 20 miles of the farm, on top of all those going out to private customers and those we served at our burger stand at events. People like the thought of a Wagyu burger because they feel special for having had the chance to experience eating the world’s most expensive beef. That, and that they taste really good and due to the fat are extra juicy. However, yet again, it’s pointless to produce a high-grade carcass if your main trade is in burgers because frankly, that’s just a waste. In addition, there is a problem with burgers from meat with too much fat because when it comes to cooking they just disintegrate as the fat melts away. Therefore, it seems like a sort of ‘happy medium’ has been established, where producers will reserve pure Wagyus for prime cuts (namely sirloins, ribeyes, rumps and sometimes additional cuts like brisket, roasting topsides and skirt) and then use the crosses to fulfil burger orders. Prime cuts will not be minced as even for crossbreds this is a waste, so instead even if the beef isn’t quite up to standard you sell this at a special price in a seasonal Beef Box or something. It sounds like a good solution and it does work, but even then you can have complications as you need to keep track of what animal you are going to slaughter to fulfil what sort of orders and when a good carcass comes back, you are assuming that the high payers are going to want the beef at the same time as when the meat comes back from the butcher. To run a business in this way you’ve got to have a solid, loyal customer base and be in an area where people with money are about in order to buy your product.
5 – Bovine Tuberculosis
TB is a huge problem in the UK, costing the taxpayer £50 million in farm-related costs (cull compensation, vet visits etc.), approximately £40 million in badger culling and between March 2020 - March 2021 the total number of cattle culled for testing positive in England and Wales was a staggering 38,614 (according to the quarterly TB report, June 2021, link at the end). TB is the most difficult, problematic notifiable livestock disease in the UK. I could spend a long time going into all the details but in short, depending on where in the country you are and the outcomes of previous tests your entire herd could be tested either once every 60 days or once every two years. A vet will come and inject all the cattle (except calves < 42 days) with bovine TB and avian TB (as a control) and return on the 4th day. Any animal that reacts is isolated on farm until they are taken away and slaughtered regardless of age, stage of lactation, pregnancy or anything. The government will then pay the farmer compensation for each animal that has gone to slaughter and the compensation depends on the animal’s age, sex, pedigree status and even whether a cow has calved. The highest payout is for a pedigree beef bull at £5,353 and £2,526 for a heifer aged between 6 and 12 months. A steer is paid at non-pedigree rates so regardless of bloodline, you could have an animal of exceptional genetics and carcass traits ready to go to slaughter and you would get just £1,186 (Bovine TB compensation tables July 2021 – link below). With these rates of compensation, and such a risk of losing valuable cattle there is no doubt why some farmers may hesitate massively in owning a £10,000 bull, or even inseminating/embryo transferring into a cow (like I said before, regardless of pregnancy stage if a cow tests positive she must be slaughtered so you lose not only the cow but the calf insider her). There are areas in the UK of lower TB incidence where it is statistically less risky holding valuable animals, however in hotspot areas I have spoken to farmers who have culled 70 cattle in just one test, which is simply beyond tragic.
About the writer:
Sophia graduated from the Royal Agricultural University (England) with a degree in BSc (Hons) Agriculture.
During her time studying she worked on a small Wagyu farm where her passion in Wagyu genetics and nutrition began.
Sophia has worked around the world obtaining a wide variety of different farming experience and has a keen additional interest in sustainable agriculture and climate change.
Wagyu thesis on bull selection and marbling:
Bovine TB statistics:
Bovine TB Compensation Tables