The JWB Wagyu Journey

Mother Nature is a great teacher. When it comes to growing and rearing food, the laws of sowing and reaping, of getting your hands dirty, adding time, waiting, and then waiting some more for a successful outcome, is a good analogy for life in general. Despite our love of instant gratification, Nature refuses to bow down and, regardless of how fast we want something, remains beautifully consistent.

If we want real and authentic over artificial and synthetic, there can be no compromise a lesson brought home to me as I consider my herd of Wagyu. What started as a project has become a passion.

The story started when I discovered Wagyu beef on a visit to Japan in 2008.The trip was organized by Bord Bia, whose staff have always been a huge help to me. They encourage innovation and have created an environment that helps food producers to step outside their comfort zone. They have encouraged me to look at my business and consider ways in which I can add value in unexpected areas. Their innovation programme gets Irish farmers and food producers behind the scenes and connects them with owner-managers and producers around the world. The level of access that they can facilitate is very impressive.

The term ‘Wagyu’ refers to several different breeds of cattle, some of which are like Angus in that they were also bred for working.Wa means ‘Japan’, and gyu means ‘cow’ –so Wagyu means ‘cow of Japan’. Kobe is the region of Japan where some of the specific bloodlines of Wagyu are bred; it’s the equivalent of Tipperary in Ireland. The terms Wagyu and Kobe are often used interchangeably.

In Japan, I was very taken with how the Japanese eat meat; their attitude is reverential. They buy meat by the gram and eat it boiled in oil rather than fried. Meat with a high fat score is greatly sought after – the higher the fat content, the better the meat. Wagyu cattle have a natural capacity to develop concentrated intramuscular marbling, a tendency that can be exaggerated with diet and husbandry. Because of the marbling, Wagyu meat is incredibly succulent. It has a buttery, more generous taste than other beef, and the fat melts at room temperature. Wagyu beef is sometimes referred to as the foie gras of beef and is much sought after as a culinary delicacy. The fat is mono-unsaturated and has the capacity to break down bad HDL (high-density lipoprotein) cholesterol – another of the reasons why it is so revered by the Japanese.

Having had the Wagyu experience in Japan, I returned home to Clonmel wanting to bring Wagyu to my shop and my customers. However, the idea of importing beef from Japan didn’t sit easily with my home-grown, local food ethos, which I believe in as strongly today as I always have. Our family business has been in existence for over forty years, and this ethos is without doubt one of the reasons for our longevity. What doesn’t come from my own farm comes from farmers I know personally. Being able to visit their farms and build relationships with them is an important pillar of what I do and who I am, and it enables me to stand over everything we sell. This would not be possible if we used a supplier from Japan – and that was before we even considered the financial cost. I had to find another way.

The prospect of starting a Wagyu herd in Ireland seemed like a bridge too far, but my interest had been piqued, and I joined the World Wagyu Association online. I discovered that some farmers in Australia were breeding Wagyu out to Angus (i.e. crossing them), with positive results. Given that I already had an intimate knowledge of the Angus, I began to feel that this was something I should explore further.

First, I studied the genetic structure and gene pool of both the Angus and the Wagyu, which are aesthetically very similar. It was quite exciting to think that by crossing the two breeds I would be able to grow on the Wagyu a little bigger to get the fat score right. In Japan, the cattle are reared indoors, massaged, and fed a by-product of sake manufacture; the alcohol enhances their appetite. I didn’t quite see how that would work in Garrentemple. But I discovered that in Australia they were using parallel farming methods to those that we use with the Angus cattle at home in Tipperary.

Then I went to Australia, where I saw Wagyu reared outdoors on grass, with an adjusted diet to encourage the development of intramuscular marbling. I could see that this could work in Ireland,where we have even better growing conditions, and I was excited by the prospect of trying to establish a foundation herd of Wagyu cattle at home. I think it was the potential to innovate, to create something new that would add value to the farm for generations, that really got me thinking.

Back in Ireland, I set about making the dream a reality. The first step was to cross the Wagyu with our own Angus. I deliberately sought out gene pools that promised a docile temperament, and animals that were naturally polled (without horns) and came to beef quickly. Our vet performed artificial insemination, using imported straws of Wagyu semen and our own female breeding stock, and we waited with bated breath for the first calves to be born nine months later.

The frame of the Angus is small, but Wagyu typically have a low birth weight and there were no calving problems. When they are born, the Wagyu look tiny, but they are very robust, come into their own quickly and grow fast. It was a very proud moment for me to see the first calves being born.

The next step was to breed full-blood Wagyu. We imported fertilised embryos from Japan, carefully chosen to avoid inbreeding, which is crucial in the foundation of a herd. The embryos were implanted into surrogates and 75% of that first batch took a very high rate. The foundations of the full-blood family that derives from those embryos comprise eleven different strains of blood in the pure Wagyu. It gives me a great sense of achievement when I see the names of their Japanese parents on the ear tags of Wagyu cattle born in Tipperary. As far as possible, I have tried to recreate the Wagyu’s natural environment at Garrentemple. The farm and the environment in which an animal is reared are as important as its breeding when it comes to producing quality beef. The pasture that the Wagyu graze in the shadow of the Comeragh Mountains, and the fact that the farm is eight hundred feet above sea level, simulates their natural habitat in Japan. We are still in the process of developing a foundation herd that will bring a regular supply of Wagyu beef to the Irish market. There is plenty of trial and error involved, but it’s exciting to be in at the start of something that I believe is truly special. Having visited many vineyards on my travels, I can compare the process to that of making a new, unique wine. For me, it’s an opportunity to develop something recognised as a world-class product in an Irish context, and to make a lasting contribution  something that will be sustainable for future generations.

The Wagyu represent a great deal to me, not least the lesson about time and patience. They are also a personal achievement and a testament to how ideals and values can be preserved without compromising progress.

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