Wagyu beef marks a new start for Worstead Farms after dairy’s demise
- Credit: Nick Butcher
After the heartbreak of selling off its renowned dairy herd, a Norfolk farming family aims to fill the livestock void by establishing the county's first herd of pedigree Wagyu beef cattle.
In an empty cattle shed, left hollow after the sale of one of the region's best-known dairy herds, a very special animal has moved in with her adopted family.
This is Yoshima, a pedigree Wagyu cow who will be the mother of a herd which marks a new start – and a new direction – for a Norfolk farming business.
The Japanese breed, famed for its highly 'marbled' premium beef, carries the hopes of Worstead Farms, near North Walsham, as it seeks to adapt and find a profitable replacement for its Lyngate milking herd.
Financial pressures and poor milk prices took their toll on the dairy unit, built up over more than 60 years through the breeding expertise and livestock passions of farmer Gavin Paterson.
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The milking cows were sold in 2011, and the last remnants of the herd were finally dispersed in May by Mr Paterson's sons Gavin, Alex and Bruce, who have taken over the farm following their father's death last December.
Bruce Paterson believes the Wagyu breed can be an important part of the farm's future.
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Working with former dairy herd manager Hayley Rushworth, he has brought in a 30-month-old pure-bred heifer, whose eggs have been fertilised with semen from pedigree stock and transplanted into 13 surrogate mothers, borrowed from his brother Alex's Red Poll and Angus herd.
The offspring will be full-blooded Wagyu which will form the nucleus of the breeding herd, which will be kept in a building which formerly housed dairy young stock at Bunns Farms in Worsted.
Mr Paterson said: 'I personally think it is definitely the right way to go. The fact that it is Wagyu makes it a bit different, and of course it is a premium product, so from a business perspective it is something which Hayley and I have been working on with the help of the family, such as borrowing heifers from Alex.
'There is a massive herd in Scotland, and there's one in Suffolk but as far as I know we are the first to get one in Norfolk. Everyone is very excited about how it will work out, not just in the family, but across Norfolk, to see what the meat looks like.
'Father died a year ago, and the dairy herd was his entire life. Had that love not been there, the herd would have been sold long before it was. In the end, the financials were just not stacking up.
'He was aware of the Wagyu and was intrigued by the breeding side of it. But he never got to see Yoshima on the ground. I would like to think he would be happy (to see the cattle shed full again) and we are crossing some with Holsteins as well, so it seems a nice fit.
'We called her Yoshima because it means 'good luck' in Japanese – with her being the mother of a lot of animals, we'll need it.'
Mr Paterson said his ultimate goal is for a breeding herd of 40 pedigree cows, with a commercial arm using crosses from his brother's Red Poll and Angus cattle, and he hopes to sell the produce directly to consumers through a meat-box scheme.
'By June 2018 we will be serving with our own Wagyu bull and we can send the bull out to a dairy unit or another beef herd with the idea that they can cover their stock with the Wagyu and we get the calves back,' he said. 'There is quite a lot of value in the animal itself over a regular breed. It is at least double the price.
'From the food chain side of it, the customer will know we have bred the animal, looked after it and reared it ourselves. If you can get your animals butchered up and returned and boxed and sold it means you get more from your product.
'A 50pc Wagyu sirloin joint is £55 per kilo, but a full-blooded one is over £100 per kilo. The flavour is very rich, and the fat is not like fat, it is more like a fine oil. The reason the restaurants like it is to cut it in thin slices for the more fancy meals.
'I know someone who had a bit of Kobe beef (a particularly sought-after variety of Wagyu cattle) in London and you are talking four figures just for a steak.'
The new Wagyu arrivals will be pampered in search of the best possible meat. Mr Paterson said he was talking to local breweries about getting some beer mash to feed to the growing cattle.
'You hear of people feeding them beer,' he said. 'Just like people go out for a few beers and then feel like having a curry, if the cows have the beer they will want to eat more. I am also happy to set up some classical music to keep them nice and calm.'
Hayley Rushworth, who used to run the farm's dairy unit, has been instrumental in selecting the genetic traits for the new beef herd. She said the principles of good stockmanship made the transition relatively straightforward.
'The diet is different and when you get into the breeding it is completely different,' she said. 'But looking after a cow is looking after a cow. It does not really change from one day to the next, whether it is a Wagyu or a dairy cow or a Highland. They have the same problems and ailments all the way through. So there is no real change as far as that goes – the biggest thing is not having to milk them twice a day.'
The Wagyu beef breed originates in Japan, where it was regarded as a 'national treasure' and protected against export until the 1970s, when the first bloodlines were released to America, with Australia following in the 1990s.
Originally used as draft animals, Wagyu cattle were selected for their physical endurance, which favoured animals with more intra-muscular fat cells, or 'marbling', which gives the meat its taste.
The name Wagyu refers to all Japanese beef cattle, with Wa meaning Japanese and gyu meaning cow.
Bruce Paterson said the challenges of rearing Wagyu cattle in the UK included the longer finishing time and constant weighing in the final months to ensure the animals' weight gain is consistent enough to give the meat its distinctive marbling.
'The marbling starts at 22 months, so we have to kill out later on, at about 30 months,' he said. 'With all farming the margins are tight, but although there is a slightly longer rearing time with a Wagyu, having the knowledge that the animal is worth double any other beef animal and the product itself is worth more than double you can start to think about the financial side stacking up better.'
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