Grass Fed Wagyu Beef in Northland

July 2016

Members of the Wagyu Producers Group aiming to develop a world class beef value chain

Lower Northland sheep and beef farmers Marshall Walton and Angela Zyzalo are members of the Firstlight Wagyu Producer Group, finishing grass-fed Wagyu beef for domestic and export markets. They farm farm-bred and bought-in Wagyu Angus-cross and Wagyu Dairy-cross steers and heifers under a supply agreement to Firstlight Foods that returns better than the steer schedule price.

Marshall and Angela farm 513ha (490ha effective) in lower Northland around the Waiotira district, south of Whangarei. They have a ewe flock and breeding cow herd, finish their lambs and cattle progeny, and finish additional steers and heifers purchased as weaners, around 90-100kg live weight.

All finishing cattle are Wagyu-cross steers or heifers, half of them bred on farm and sired by leased Wagyu bulls and the other half purchased as weaners in December (spring-born) and July (autumn-born). The farm cows are a mix of Angus, Angus Friesian-cross and Angus Jersey-cross, tending towards the latter as a Northland specialisation with replacements bought from Whangarei Heads breeder Murray Jagger. Marshall said the Jersey genetics provide additional marbling in the Wagyu-cross progeny. The smaller framed cattle are easy calving, good milk providers to calves and mobilise their fat better through changes of seasons. At present Marshall is increasing the number of Wagyu-cross finishing cattle from 150 a year to 200, by bringing in 50 autumn-borns.

Marshall and Angela have been members of the Firstlight Wagyu Producers Group since the first year and there are now five Northland members among 35 nationwide.

The WPG marketing is building premiums for farmers over normal beef schedule prices, which compensates for slower growth rates and lighter carcass weights (average 280kg) in the Wagyu-cross cattle, Marshall says. His finished cattle are slaughtered at 30 to 36 months, heifers first in summer followed by steers in the middle of the year. Returns for Wagyu beef are increasing as more farmers get involved in the WPG, more beef is produced, the marbling scores increase, and Firstlight develops markets for the trims (non-primal cuts).

Challenges for Marshall in farming Wagyu-cross cattle include autumn weight gains, like all cattle in Northland, when pasture quality declines and facial eczema is a problem. Animal health treatments for the Wagyu-cross cattle are no different from other cattle under Marshall’s care.

Formed in 2011, the Wagyu Producer Group is half-owned by participating farmers and half by the value-chain management team. It contains 35 farmers, plus 140 other farmers who are pending shareholders and contracted suppliers (many of whom are dairy farmers producing Wagyu X calves for the pre-mentioned suppliers and shareholders). Both South Island and North Island suppliers are grouped into regional hubs. Group members supply Wagyu-cross steers and heifers throughout the year for premium chilled beef to overseas and NZ customers. In the past 12 months the Wagyu Producer Group processed nearly 4,500 cattle and this is expected to grow to over 15,000 cattle in the next three years.

Wagyu-cross cattle are produced from fullblood Wagyu bulls owned by the producer group, generated at a central stud in Hawkes Bay owned by Wagyu Breeders Ltd. Wagyu bulls are mated to Angus cows and dairy cows, most of which are Friesian Jersey-cross, (Kiwicross) which offers a great opportunity for this sector of the dairy industry. The potential for growth in cattle numbers is mating dairy cows with Wagyu semen by AI.

Firstlight Foods, Hawke’s Bay, is the value-chain manager and exporter, and slaughtering and processing is done under contract by Greenlea Meats, Hamilton.

Wagyu Producers Group is also part of the $23 million Primary Growth Partnership over seven years from 2013 to 2020. The public-private partnership aims to deliver a world-class beef value chain.

Wagyu-cross cattle are slaughtered predominantly between 20 months and 36 months of age. Older cattle are used to supply the late winter/early spring period, otherwise cattle tend towards two-year-olds. The average mixed sex carcass weight has been 280kg, with average lifetime liveweight gains of 0.6kg/day.

The average marble score has been 5 for the 18 months to May 2016, on a scale of 0 to 9, having improved from 3-4 previously.

Producer Group members get a base price (CW) on slaughter, followed by a pool return. All breeders and store cattle farmers that contribute to the lifetime production of the individual cattle share in the pool distribution based on the live weight gain. The base price varies during the year by the cost of production – higher in the winter/spring and lower in the summer. Payments are also made on the basis of carcass quality, marbling score, meat and fat colour. The input costs, or purchase prices paid by farmers for Wagyu-cross calves, weaners or store stock are directly related to the ruling base price and the cattle weights.