Marulan beef producer Jeremy Cooper believes Australian Wagyu breeders can increase the consistency of marbling in their carcases and reduce the days on feed by emulating Japanese production systems.
Fresh from a 12-day trip to Japan as part of the Australian Wagyu Association's Wagyu Fellowship program, Mr Cooper saw first hand the quality high-marbling product that can be achieved through early weaning and specialised feeding techniques.
Overseas Wagyu breeders, who often run small herds as small as 10 head, wean calves from three days to three months of age which are put straight onto milk replacer, later pellets then full grain diets and eventually finishing rations.
These are then sold to a finisher or feedlot at about 300 kilograms for $10,000 to $11,000 (AUD) who feed them until they reach 30 months and generally receive carcase prices of $18,000 to $20,000 (AUD).
Interestingly, Japanese Wagyu breeders and finishers are very seperate groups and marble and carcase information is rarely shared between them.
Despite having a progressive grading system, the use of objective measurement tools to measure superior animals is also lost in Japanese breeding decisions, which are based around pedigree and "gut feel".
It's an area Mr Cooper believes Australia can capitalise on.
"Japan has 47 prefectures to generalise breeding stock, and breeding decisions are very much kept within the boundaries of each prefecture," he said.
"By using all the selection tools available and taking a disciplined scientific approach to raising these cattle and using all the information we understand about early ruminant intervention and foetal programming and genomics, I am convinced we will see marked improvement in consistency of high marbling.
"We are still going to get some bad outcomes, but you will reduce the amount of those."
Currently an Australian Wagyu breeder may wean calves at six to nine months, background them on pasture and grow them out until they make feedlot weight.
Mr Cooper wants to conduct a trial preparing two groups of calves of the same genetics under alternative techniques.
One group would be prepared by traditional Australian means while the other would have access to creep feeding from the day they were born, weaned at four to five months before moving onto a grower ration and later a finishing ration.
"If we understand we can get paid substantial premiums for high marble beef let's apply some discipline to the system," he said.
"Early weaning is such a great tool and it goes hand and hand with this system."
While Japanese meat buyers believe 30 months is the ideal age to kill a Wagyu, Mr Cooper would also like to analyse marbling at an earlier time.
"We had a lot of people in Japan tell us they thought they could get the same level of marble from 30 months at 24 to 26 months but in Japan the meat buyers have this perception that 30 months is the optimum time," he said.
"I'd like to harvest the cattle from 24, 26 and 28 months and just see.
"If you take a science and objective measurement approach to breeding the animal and filter that back in and give them optimum nutrition at the appropriate time I reckon we can increase the consistency of marbling and we can reduce the days on feed.
"So more high value dollar carcase with less input. That's just got to be beneficial."
Mr Cooper operates a commercially focused seedstock business and is in the building phase of his Wagyu herd with 200 fullblood pregnancies expected this year.
He is also engaged with a group looking to supply Wagyu carcases to global markets and wants to ensure his outlay on feeding a beef product is put towards the highest marbling animals.
"Wagyu is all about marbling, marbling is what drives taste," he said.
"This is the Rolls-Royce of the beef industry so it just doesn't make sense to make slightly marbled carcases, we need to maximise marbling."
Wagyu producers are heavily subsidised in Japan and Mr Cooper also noted future opportunity for Australian producers if that subsidy was removed.
"That represents opportunity for Australian to produce feeder cattle and fly them to Japan and sell them at an incredibly increase profit margin for us but a reduced price for them," he said.
"I also see that...even though we have a smaller gene pool, our genetic gain when we adopt these philosophies will be far quicker than what currently happens in Japan."
While the temptation of premium prices saw a substantial rise in F1 breeding and subsequently reduced their value, Mr Cooper noted that the full blood market hadn't seen such dramatic shifts in price point.
Mr Cooper said when F1 prices peaked at just under $7/kg about two years ago many producers began purchasing Wagyu bulls to cross with their Angus breeders.
"We saw a lot of bulls being sold into the opportunistic F1 market supply chain very quickly and a lot of bulls that weren't right for that system and they were also used on a lot of cattle that weren't documented as high marbling Angus cattle," he said.
"Then all of a sudden there is a glut in the market because, one, there is a heap of these things coming into the marketplace, two, there is no where to background because we have a drought and, three, feed prices are almost two and a half times more than what they were 12 months ago and these cattle have to be fed for a long time.
"So it's the perfect storm."
But, he said it wasn't a true indication of the fullblood Wagyu market.