THE early days of Wagyu breeding in Australia involved a fair degree of blind faith and, fascinatingly, it was arguably ostriches that paved the way.
In an entertaining review of the pioneering days for the breed - a mere 30 odd years ago - veterinarian Dr Simon Coates talked about the massive cultural hurdles Wagyu had to overcome in Australia during a presentation at this year’s Australian Wagyu Association conference.
Dr Coates’ Sumo Cattle Company is today a market leader in global Wagyu seedstock and this year will produce 3000 embryos, implanting around 2000 into their own recipients.
In the early 1990s, when there were just 15 members of AWA, Wagyu was considered a curiosity “like the ostrich, which was big in the ’90s,” Dr Coates said.
The first genetics in Australia were imported by Queenslander Wally Rea and in 1991, Sumo purchased 1000 Angus heifers, mated them with F1 Wagyus and sold the steers to Nippon for $1.70 a kilogram at a time when Angus were making 80c/kg.
“We started to do field days trying to promote Wagyu but there was a lot of flak from general cattlemen,” Dr Coates said.
For two years, the Wagyu association’s tiny membership ran the days from Tasmania to Hughenden, processing two steers at each event so there were up to 300 steaks for those attending to sample.
The extras were given to charity.
“Typically I’d talk about the beef industry, then right at the last minute bring Wagyu in for five minutes because a lot of people got very upset about this new breed and I’d take a fair thrashing,” Dr Coates said.
“Then we’d go outside and have a steak and all those people who were upset when I was speaking, you could see their bottom jaw drop - the quality of the meat astounded them.
“Within ten minutes, a group of people were talking to me about how to get involved with Wagyu.
“That is all that sold Wagyu - the quality of the meat.”
The AWA went from 15 members to 300 in three years.
The first purebred Wagyu sale was held in Roma in 1995 and it grossed $302,000.
Bulls averaged $5000 and the biggest purchaser was an ostrich and deer farmer.
The same year, Sumo pioneered the live export of F1 feeder steers into Japan.
“It all moved very fast - we quickly developed markets including a domestic market for F1s and for purebreds and overseas markets,” Dr Coates said.
Another of the industry’s most experienced breeders, Barbara Roberts-Thomson, believes Wagyu will eventually infiltrate all breeds in Australia, particularly in the north.
They won’t go north to be called Wagyu and chase premium money, they will go for more heifers pregnant and more live calves, she said.
Ms Roberts-Thomson runs the Academy Red Wagyu stud near Armidale on the NSW Northern Tablelands.
She bred Herefords and Poll Herfords for 25 years before making the switch to Wagyu on the back of better eating quality attributes.
Having built up a herd of top quality black Wagyus over 12 years, it was sold in 2010 to Hughes Pastoral, a large scale commercial Wagyu operation in Northern Australia. They acquired the Armidale property for the purpose of breeding bulls for their own needs and Ms Roberts-Thomson was employed to do their genetic work.
The Academy Cattle Company also started breeding red Wagyu in 2003.
Many people don’t even know red Wagyus exist but they are a “real answer” for northern herds, given their coats allow for a 7 per cent lower temperature, Ms Roberts-Thomson said.
“Again, not looking for the high premium but to improve herds on fertility, udder shape, sheath shape and into the bargain improved meat quality,” she said.
“They marble at the top of Angus, bottom of black Wagyu.
“Few are slaughtered in Australia at the moment but there are breeders making very good money selling embryos and semen around the world and there is a big opportunity for breeding,” she said.
Ms Roberts-Thomson was one of the first Wagyu breeders to measure and compare progress by recording data and has been using BreedPlan for 18 years.
She said when she started out, she would ask around about which were the good bulls.
“It seem a secret society - no one would tell you what was good,” she said.
“Looking back now I think the reason they didn’t tell you was they didn’t actually know.
“To people who say they’ve been breeding good cattle all their life and don’t need figures to help them, let me ask you four quick questions,” she said.
“Are your fertility rates as good as you’d like them to be? Are your weaning weights the envy of all your neighbours? Do you get steers to feedlot entry weights quicker than you did five years ago? When your marbling results come out are you over the moon?
“If the answer is no to any, performance testing can help and guide you.
“Unless you know where you’ve come from, how do you know how to improve?”