Wagyu worth the wait

Builder turned farmer Duncan Robertson is into his third year breeding and finishing Wagyu beef on his Northland dairy farm.

By Annabelle Latz. Photos by Malcolm Pullman.

In Livestock11 Minutes

Striking the balance between margins and quality is the goal when producing Wagyu beef.

Based at Kerikeri, Duncan Robertson breeds and finishes Wagyu, which he sees as a complementary addition to the family dairy farm.

In February 2020 Country-Wide caught up with Duncan when his first Wagyu calves were on the ground.

Wind the clock forward three years and he reflects on last year’s inaugural cull, described as a hangover from a couple of summer droughts.

“We were a bit behind in weight. We sold them two or three months later than they should have been.”

This meant being heavier stocked for a while, but since then they’ve had a couple of summers with good grass growth and stock has been finished on time.

“It’s been the same for everyone around Northland, even the commercial beef farmers,” Duncan says.

The Robertsons do have the luxury of having space to graze and produce a good amount of grass, and maize silage is fed out when there’s a pinch.

The dairy farm is 140ha, which is also used for rearing the Wagyu calves and other beef calves. They lease 170ha from Duncan’s in-laws across the road and have access to grazing blocks down the road when needed.

Amongst the Wagyu herd on the home block there are 89 R1 steers and heifers, 25 R2s (with an additional 97 out grazing on the lease block), and 271 R3s.

Despite the Wagyu breed being commonly known for its slower growth rate, those in the industry have methods to mitigate this.

It typically takes 28 to 30 months to finish Wagyu, compared to commercial beef which takes four to six months less. Talking numbers, that means on average 0.6kg LW/day for Wagyu, compared to commercial breeds’ 0.8kg LW/day. “That means 200g a day, and that adds up,” Duncan says.

This year he’ll be finishing 250 Wagyu, and justifies the longer time in the paddock by the prime price he pulls. Typically he receives on average $1.50/kg LW (including shareholder dividend) more than a commercial beef farmer, with the prices fixed after March 31 each year by First Light Foods, of which Duncan is now a shareholder.

In the background is Mount Pouerua pa. It was inhabited until about 1860 and when missionaries arrived in the 1820s they estimated more than 5000 people lived there.

Getting the recipe right

Producing meat for First Light Foods takes skill and time, and Duncan says putting a Wagyu bull over his Kiwicross or Jersey heifers is a good  recipe, providing good hybrid vigour and growth. Crossing a Wagyu bull with straight Friesian or Angus does not provide the marbling or the taste.

“The cross I’m using means good growth rate, but does not sacrifice the taste or marbling.”

Putting Jersey in the mix also means a smaller calf, which means a lighter footprint on the grass and a faster-finishing animal.

During winter Duncan breaks paddocks into roughly half-hectare cells and stocks at about 1000kg/ha.

He drafts animals two months prior to kill date, and feeds ad-lib maize silage in transportable troughs to increase the marble score.

He dedicates a couple of winters to do the job properly and finish the Wagyu to a high standard, but the rewards are reaped when he’s achieving above average marble scores and some of the tastiest meat on the hook.

Wagyu producers are graded between two and nine on a marble score, Duncan achieves 5.3, one whole score above average.

First Light Foods CEO Jason Ross says Duncan’s ability to breed his own calves and finish them delivers the best financial and meat quality outcomes.

“We call it breed to finish, and it’s the ultimate model for us and the farmers.”

Jason says in the world of beef production, first comes bone, then comes meat, then comes marbling. Therefore, it takes time to finish any animal, and because dairy breeds have more marbling in them than traditional beef breeds, it’s the preferred cross.

“Grass-fed Wagyu beef is being finished properly, farmers are allowing the time on grass for the energy of the animal to produce the marbling.”

First Light Foods decided to cap their cattle count at 18,000 a year nationwide, backing up the company’s view that the focus across the agricultural industry worldwide should be quality rather than quantity.

“This is quite a big thing for us, and we aspire for these to be the most valuable cattle in New Zealand,” Jason says.

Effort and energy to maximise the value of the meat through a push for more online sales and increasing brand and retail presence is one focus, alongside investigating options for how to use the ‘fifth quarter’ of the animal, the parts that are traditionally deemed as waste.

Research is taking place in New Zealand around pet food (bones), vitamin supplements (offal), and collagen products (hide).

“If you are deficient in vitamin B12, you’ve been trained to take a synthetic capsule. But people are starting to question the ethics of this,” Jason says, adding that liver is the single most nutrient-dense product on the planet containing vitamin B12, iron, zinc, vitamin A and a host of other micronutrients.

This research started 18 months ago and products will be rolled out in the US, initially to First Light Food’s existing retail customers.

Jason says if farmers are being encouraged to have fewer animals, it is First Light Food’s mission to protect their income and the fifth quarter concept is an answer to this.

“We need to be in a position to give farmers more money.”

Back on the dairy farm, Duncan has reduced dairy replacement matings by using sexed semen over the top third of his dairy herd.

The technology has been available in New Zealand for about a decade as frozen and fresh semen, with fresh semen being available in Northland for the past couple of years.

Duncan has experienced good replacement numbers for his dairy herd, which reduces the number of bull calves, due to the 90% guarantee of a heifer calf. This means he now has more cows to mate for producing high quality beef.

Mixing it up

Wagyu is used across the more Jersey-blooded cows, and Charolais over the more Friesian cows. He uses natural mating of Hereford bulls to mop up the rest, “as a colour code”.

This technology costs twice as much, but the investment is worth it. Duncan ends up with a good number of replacements and beef calves worth $200, rather than a Kiwicross/Jersey bull worth between $20 and $30 as a four-day old calf.

“It means all our calves have a valued end use.”

He’s running 52 R1 Charolais steers and heifers, 53 R1 Hereford steers and heifers, 21 R1 Jersey and crossbreed bulls, 15 R2 dairy cross steers, and 79 R2 Hereford steers and heifers.

Running a comparative eye over them, Duncan says Charolais are ahead on size compared to the Herefords.

“We now have a lot more good quality beef animals from the dairy farm because of this.”

He’ll be finishing 180 Charolais/Herefords this year, on par with other years, but given the very wet winters and dry summers over recent years these numbers have fluctuated a bit.

Last winter was particularly wet, which brought its own challenges with stock management and trying to protect the farm from pasture damage, but overall things are looking positive on the farming front for Duncan. He’s looking forward to finishing more quality Wagyu, and his decision to terminate his building career in 2016 and commit to the Wagyu industry is one he does not regret.