Wagyu Breeders Ltd

November 2006
Vertical integration for breeding and exporting, finishing and marketing Wagyu beef, which has a higher degree of fat marbling or intramuscular fat, than other cattle breeds.

The Wagyu breed forms the base of the Japanese beef cattle industry. In fact Wagyu means Japanese cattle in Japanese. Wagyu is a horned breed and can be either black or red-coated. Black animals are perceived to have the best quality carcass. Calves are vigorous and average a comparatively small 32kgs when born.

Wagyu are renowned for their marbling, calving ease, early puberty and good fertility, docile temperament, and are hardy and adaptive to different environments. The intramuscular fat confers more flavour and succulence to the cooked beef, so that Wagyu beef is keenly sought at premium prices in many beef markets around the world. US, Canada, UK, Australia and NZ have established Wagyu herds over the past decade, using Wagyu bull semen over cows of other breeds, to establish first crossbreds, and then move up to full-blood Wagyus.

Wagyu cattle have a softer fat which improves the meat flavour and taste. The improvement is due to the higher ratio of mono-unsaturated fatty acids to saturated fatty acids. The intramuscular fat of Wagyu cattle is twice as high in mono-unsaturated fat as traditional breeds. This results in a healthier product. This is also considered to result in the better beef flavour.

Brownrigg Agriculture (BA) is a large, diversified, family-owned farming operation on the east coast of the North Island, mainly in Hawkes Bay. It has 12 livestock farms and five cropping farms and orchards and numerous share-farming agreements and contracts with partnering farms. The base of the operation is integrated cropping and livestock, employing 80 full time staff and a peak employment of 180 full-time equivalents at the peak of the season. Brownrigg Agriculture has over 11,000ha of which 800ha is maize cropped and a further 2500ha of other cropping, mostly new grass. The company finishes 300,000 lambs and 5000 steers and bulls. It also controls 5000 Wagyu cattle, which is the biggest number of the breed in New Zealand. Joint managing directors of Brownrigg Agriculture are brothers David and Jonathon Brownrigg.

Wagyu Breeders is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Brownrigg Agriculture, and the manager is Tim OBrien, assisted by his wife Erin.

Wagyu Breeders owns cattle, not land. The herd is sharefarmed or grazed on properties throughout the North Island. The biggest client is Brownrigg Agriculture which contracts approximately 2500 animals annually. The Wagyu fit well within Brownrigg Agricultures farming programme and complement other enterprises within the business. Because of their scale and excellent cattle facilities, WB is able to undertake pre-export isolations and large artificial breeding programmes, and house the elite Wagyu Stud. The purpose built embryo transfer facilities which include laboratories and semen collection areas allow Wagyu Breeders to complete ET programmes on a large commercial scale.

As well as Brownrigg, Wagyu Breeders is also sharefarming breeding cows, both autumn and spring calving herds, with farmers mainly based along the east coast of the North Island. This is a 50/50 sharefarming agreement where WB supplies the herd, the farmer supplies the land/management and Wagyu Breeders purchases all progeny back at a set price (50% share of calf price is paid). Pricing ranges depending on grade of cattle $2.50/kg LW for F2 calves from F1 MA cows in a spring herd, through to $3.40/kg LW for F4 calves from an F3 autumn calving herd. This gives the sharefarmer a component of breeding cows on farm, without having the outlay of capital and having a guaranteed market for his weaners. Breeding bulls are supplied, or an artificial insemination programme is undertaken where practical.

Replacement females are grazed on annual contract, again managed by individual farmers. There are set targets for mating weights and ability to artificially inseminate on farm is a requirement.

Wagyu Breeders Ltd owns 140 fullblood Wagyu breeding bulls created from embryo transfer, and 120 fullblood donor females. The majority of the bulls are used for natural mating, with the top 10 elite bulls being collected for various artificial insemination programmes. The majority of bull collection takes place at facilities provided by Brownrigg Agriculture, but WB also uses registered semen collection centres within the dairy industry where necessary.

The Wagyu commercial herd has 5000 breeding females and rising 1yr replacement heifers, which are grade F1 to full blood.

WB has invested heavily over the years in genetics (using some 1500 ETs), facilities and systems with recording. The biggest proportion of the herd is F1, F2 on a predominantly Friesian base.

Because of constraints early in the market place and limited quarantine facilities in Japan, Wagyu Breeders was unable to sell higher purity females as feeder cattle, so they were retained for breeding. As a result WB has some high purity females that it currently breeds from. As the genetics used to create these animals are focused on marbling rather than maternal traits, Wagyu Breeders would prefer not to keep these animals. So WB is currently breeding out of them, culling dry animals and retaining those in calf.

The current emphasis is to get back to F1 and F2 breeding cows because of frame size, growth rates and milking ability. The progeny is a minimum of three quarters Wagyu and this is plenty for the Wagyu characteristics to be dominant. Both the main markets for Wagyu require some full blood cattle and Wagyu Breeders achieves this thru ET. The plan is to increase the herd to 6000 females plus based on current forecasted numbers required. Wagyu Breeders works with the dairy industry to create F1 females from Friesian cows and heifers as replacements. It also purchases male calves from this programme, making this more viable for the dairy farmer.

Traceback is extremely important to the markets that Wagyu Breeders serves.

Sire identification and the ability to create a birth certificate or passport add value to both live export animals and chilled product. Erin OBrien collates all information relating to animals born and passes it on to a database operator who creates these certificates. The end result is a quality product that has full traceability from the table back to the farm of origin, including four generations of pedigree.

The original business was built around Japanese customer, Kato Farming, which exports annually 2500 calves live to Japan at around 200-250kgs LW. They go on two air freights in June and July (after weaning) flown by jumbo jet out of Auckland Airport (500 head per airfreight). One boat in October takes later-born calves (1500 head). Tim manages Pre-export isolation, with Erin looking after all required documentation. Demand for live Wagyu in Japan has increased, hence the requirement for more live-trade and less chilled beef out of the Kato Feedlot, which is based on the Brownrigg farm at Te Aute. There have also been difficulties with the quality of processing in NZ, something Wagyu Breeders is addressing through its marketing partner. Kato also purchases some full-blood progeny for its New Zealand feedlot, created through ET from the elite animals. Kato bring the Japanese Wagyu Beef market to New Zealand, the most discerning and highest priced beef market in the world.

A second branded beef marketing initiative is being developed which is linking Wagyu Breeders to some of the best restaurants and food retailers in the world.

The brand celebrates the lifestyle and natural attributes of New Zealand. Wagyu beef is famed for its flavour and texture and pricing bears little relation to commodity beef prices, selling for not incrementally above commodity beef but several times the price it is a sensational product and the quality from New Zealand is second to none, according to David Brownrigg.

This business takes all surplus higher purity Wagyu Breeders cattle. Due to export requirements, WB needs to breed more than required to ensure target numbers for export. The introduction of this partnership gives WB the opportunity to sell all progeny not required for replacements, and also means that the marketing partner has access to quality Wagyu cattle in New Zealand. The partnership also purchases F1 animals created from the dairy programme, which are back grounded on pasture before entering the short-feed stage, where they are finished and sent chilled to overseas markets. Weight requirement is 450kgs for steers for entry to feedlot, and 350kgs for females. The liveweight before slaughter is 700-800kgs.