Niche cross-breeding opportunity seen for dairy
By Sherry Bunting, originally published in Farmshine, Sept. 14, 2018
NEW BERLIN, N.Y. — Their frame and appearance could be deemed more dairy than beef. Their meat is prized above all for flavor and tenderness. At hotels and resorts, Wagyu beef is top-of-the-line. If you’ve eaten the real thing, you know it.
In Japan, the Wagyu are a longstanding national treasure.
In the U.S., they have been the pride and joy of breeders like Donald ‘Doc’ Sherwood, DVM. He has been breeding full-blood Wagyu beef cattle for 17 years at his Empire State Farm near Binghamton, New York.
On Saturday, September 22nd, 100 lots of elite Wagyu cattle and genetics will sell in the Empire State Farm (ESF) ‘Final Chapter’ herd dispersal at the Hosking Sales facility in New Berlin.
The sale will feature young and mature cows, bred and open heifers, herd sire prospects, embryo recipient cows, cow/calf pairs, embryos and semen.
Cow Buyer will be in the house for online bidding as well.
The retired veterinarian once bred some top purebred Holstein dairy cattle under the ESF prefix in a joint venture several decades ago, with one of his sons, who previously had a dairy farm. They sold some ESF dairy cattle to Japan.
Years later, in 2001, Dr. Sherwood began importing the Japanese Wagyu beef cattle and developed full-blood genetics — taking his love of bovines in a different direction toward the elite melt-in-your-mouth beef of the Wagyu.
“I was interested in the disposition of these animals and the quality of their meat,” Sherwood recalls in a phone interview with Farmshine this week. “I researched them, and I realized they were a fit for me. There were not too many breeders at the time, and their disposition made it possible for me to work with them on my own.”
Full-blood herds, like ESF, are highly prized as sources of imported and developed 100% Wagyu genetics. Sherwood explains that purebred herds are defined as a minimum 93% Wagyu and that the industry today includes many other ‘percentage-Wagyu’ herds.
In fact, the American Wagyu Association (AWA) is the fastest growing beef breed association in recent years.
Sherwood chose to stay 100% Wagyu, breeding only full-bloods according to the Japanese tradition. Over the years, he’s sold mainly breeding stock, but also surplus males for others to finish for specialty top-shelf beef markets.
During his veterinary years before retirement in 2003, Sherwood and his wife Mary, worked as partners, but as he got into the Wagyu after retirement, she was unable for health reasons to help. He has developed a real affinity for this breed because of the way they acclimate readily to people making his work easier in these later years.
“These cattle are a pleasure to work with. It’s neat to have an animal you can work with by yourself as long as you let them know you’re around,” Sherwood observes.
He says many people are getting started into this breed and building on it, in part because they are easy to work with as long as they are not left to run wild.
“It’s not hard to work with the Wagyu. They adjust to people very well and become docile and friendly with interaction, where other beef breeds don’t get that disposition where they enjoy being around people,” Sherwood explains.
“The Japanese bred these cattle originally, and I’ve based a lot of my program on the proven sires from Japan. Most of my sires have come from Japan, where these cattle are a national treasure – they think that much of them,” he adds.
We hear the stories, that the Japanese feed the Wagyu beer and massage them and take individual care of them as smallholder operations. As Sherwood notes, Japan doesn’t have the land resources for cattle like in the U.S., so they are protective of their Wagyu in smaller and more intimate settings.
He is quick to point out, “It’s really the meat that makes the Wagyu stand out. These aren’t show cattle. Their claim to fame is how they look on the rail,” Sherwood explains. “With meat so outstanding, the Wagyu are more noted for the quality of their meat than being judged for their appearance in a show ring. They aren’t that muscular, but have that good-tasting beef with a healthy and flavorful fat.”
In the U.S., Wagyu (or as it is often described on menus as “Kobe”) often comes from percentage-herds or crossbreeding. But for those who’ve had the real-deal, it’s an eating experience not soon forgotten.
Information from the American Wagyu Association (AWA) suggests the type of marbling is different. Imagine thin ribbons of intramuscular fat evenly dispersed. And AWA notes this is a healthy fat that is high in Omega 3’s.
“To look at them, you would never know what a superior beef animal they are,” Sherwood says with a chuckle. “They aren’t muscular or thick like other beef breeds, and in some ways their body structure is more dairy.”
In fact, in Japan and Australia, Holsteins are often crossed with the Wagyu to reduce birthweight for first-calf dairy animals and to produce an F1 cross that offers a “commercial” version of this very distinctive high-quality beef.
In Australia, for example, the Wagyu herd is quite large, and they’ve developed the F1 Holstein x Wagyu as a secondary income stream for a dairy industry under siege of many years of poor milk prices.
Breeding Holstein females to Wagyu bulls is already commonplace in both Japan and Australia with Wagyu x Holstein deemed the ultimate cross in Japan because Holsteins are the next highest marbling cattle breed behind Wagyus, producing meat superior in quality to the meat of Wagyu crossed with any other breed, according to information available from the AWA.
Their highly-marbled beef typically grades Prime or above, even in crossbreeding programs. In fact, Japan has eight quality standards above the U.S. Prime quality grade that the Wagyu meet, according to the AWA.
In the U.S., less than 2% of all U.S. beef currently grades Prime. This, along with a return of consumers to fat and flavor after revelations about the pitfalls of lowfat diets, helps position the Wagyu as a breed that can make a significant impact on beef quality – particularly in dairy-cross programs where the value of bull calves is increased and sexed semen heifers are produced with matings to dairy bulls.
The AWA reports that numerous U.S. buyers are willing to pay $0.20-0.30 per lb premiums above local market beef prices for Wagyu F1 calves (Wagyu x Holstein).
However, this value is only realized when working with a marketing system that recognizes the superior eating quality of the Wagyu.
Still, Sherwood notes that nothing else — no cross — equals the flavor of full-blooded 100% Wagyu beef. And that is why full-bloods command such high prices.
As an example, one ESF animal selling on Sept. 22 had a sister sell for $16,000 at a sale in Limerick, Pennsylvania in April of this year. It was the Synergy Wagyu Genetic Opportunity Sale.
Synergy had several Empire State Farm (ESF) females in their herd and sold their ESF-pedigree offspring for amounts up to $46,000, according to information available in the sale catalog
In his letter to buyers, Dr. Sherwood says he does not claim to be an expert on Japanese Wagyu, but that he studied the breed extensively and incorporated the Japanese philosophy into his management to develop lines with the outstanding meat Wagyu are known for and crossing them with Wagyu lines that bring size, milking ability, small calves for calving ease as well as disposition and temperament.
“This sale is it for me,” says Sherwood, 86, about his beloved cattle project. “We had an auction five years ago, and then started up again, but age and health have me slowing-down so this is a complete dispersal this time. I’ve had 40 years as a veterinarian and a great wonderful time working with cattle and enjoying it. Now I’ll spend more time with my family with thanks to our sons Don and Steve, and especially my wife Mary. We have worked together all of our life.”