Using Wagyu beef to increase profits

In their pursuit of better returns on their small live­stock farm, John and Nina Ander­sson, based outside Ängel­holm in Sweden, turned to the legendary Japanese Wagyu cattle. They are known for their famous premium marbled meat, which is cher­ished by food connois­seurs and chefs across the world.

A severe draught in 2018, which shot feed concen­trate prices sky-high, made John and Nina Ander­sson reassess their beef produc­tion. Farming at Renards­fält on the Swedish west coast, they had already switched from feeding up calves for other farmers to finish, to raising steers all the way to slaughter.

But they wanted to stay in farming and keep raising cattle, so with an almost scien­tific approach they researched areas and niches where they would have a chance to become prof­itable. They wanted to achieve a sustain­able income for them and their three chil­dren on the farm which John had inher­ited as the fourth gener­a­tion, following his paternal great-grand­fa­ther.

”We came to the conclu­sion that if you want to be prof­itable you have to make more money on the meat you produce by keeping the cattle to slaughter,” says Nina. Although they were never inclined to go to large-scale produc­tion, that option wasn’t viable as farm­land around their 50ha farm was never on the market, nor would it have been afford­able.

Our first Wagyu calf cost us 30,000 Skr (£2275).

John Ander­sson

After eval­u­ating various options and excluding niches like grass-fed or organic meat, which were already filled with existing competi­tors, they landed on the deci­sion to incor­po­rate the Red Wagyu breed – known for its high content of marbled fat and healthy fatty acids – into their herd. They bought their first embryos from Denmark in 2020. “We bought three embryos, and only one was successful, so our first Red Wagyu calf cost us nearly 30,000 Skr (£2275),” says John.

Their previous herd and Simmental legacy in Japan

Before the tran­si­tion the couple had some 150 head of Holstein steers, although they were not making ends meet. Now they are aiming for half that herd, of around 75 head, as they plan on using as much home-grown feed as possible.

“We wanted to replace our previous live­stock with a breed that was polled, easy to handle and with a good feed conver­sion ratio,” explains Nina.  “That excluded some of the tradi­tional beef cattle, so we landed on concen­trating our produc­tion to a Wagyu-Angus cross, although we still have some Simmental and Belted Galloways calves.”

The couple went about iden­ti­fying the best cross at an almost mole­c­ular level, befit­ting Nina who is a trained mole­c­ular biol­o­gist, and in-line with the scien­tific approach the Japanese have now adopted to enhance the Wagyu meat further. Despite their choice of the Angus breed, a Simmental cow was the first reveiver of an embryo; a breed which has tradi­tion­ally been used, even by Japanese farmers, to develop the Wagyu, says Nina.

The Belted Galloway cow Cati with her F1-Wagyu calf Gomez.

The couple settled for the Red Wagyu, which together with the Black Wagyu is the most used Wagyu breed outside Japan, of the four breeds that are clas­si­fied as Wagyu in Japan. “The history of Wagyu cattle is inter­esting,” notes Nina. “Initially the cattle were used for pulling field culti­va­tors and it was forbidden to eat the meat. But at the end of the 19th Century, Japan wanted to increase its meat produc­tion and crossed the Red Wagyu with Simmental to get bigger animals – and the Red Wagyu today still has some 25% Simmental genetics.”

The first Wagyu calf to be born on the Renards­fält farm was the heifer Inari, named after the Japanese goddess of agri­cul­ture, in 2021 from fertilised eggs bought in Denmark. Germany is other­wise the Euro­pean country that has come furthest in devel­oping the Wagyu breed so far.

Today, all calves born on the farm are at least 50% wagyu, and the plan is to have replaced virtu­ally all non-wagyu animals by 2025 as they work their way up to the final count of 75 heads. The Ander­sson family plan to raise their cattle to slaughter at around 24 months, but will also sell live cattle and genetic mate­rial if the oppor­tu­nity arises. They have already sold a bull, a 100% mix of Red and Black Wagyu for about 40,000 Skr (£3050), but Nina says the price was at the low end because the buyer had preferred a 100% Black Wagyu.

A purchase of a few preg­nant Wagyu cattle in 2021 added to their still young herd and now they have 47 head of Wagyu born on their farm. “John wanted to develop our own herd by a four-breed crossing, but that would take at least four gener­a­tions and the bene­fits of it were unclear,” says Nina.

They will increase and main­tain the herd size using their own breeding stock, but even­tu­ally will have to incor­po­rate new DNA to avoid inbreeding. They would like to buy from the US, but that road is not currently open because of blue­tongue disease in the southern US means imports from that area are prohib­ited.

The Wagyu´s way out of Japan

Wagyu cattle have been and remain a highly cher­ished animal in Japan, and veiled in an almost myth­ical history. So there was no clear deci­sion to share the breed and allow foreign breeders access to genetic mate­rial. Over the past 50 years access has ranged from some scien­tific exports and restricted exports to smug­gling and outright bans, as the Japanese want to retain control over the breed.

100% Wagyu heifer “Geshi” (meaning Midsummer in Japanese).
Valdemar, an F1-Wagyu steer calf out of a Simmental cow.

Only four pure­bred Wagyu bulls were exported to the US in the 1970s for scien­tific research, but they were later used for breeding. Together with cunningly-used loop­holes in the Japanese-US trade restric­tions, some 200 Wagyu animals were then exported out of Japan. Of those, only 20 were Red Wagyu. “That is the main problem; the whole genetic pool relies of offspring from these 20 animals,” says Nina, who is focusing on raising the Red Wagyu, primarily.

Despite the industry´s own restric­tive export poli­cies, there were no formal export bans during the decades leading up to 2020, when the Japanese govern­ment suggested a full-on export ban on live Wagyu cattle and genetic mate­rial. The aim was to retain control of the increas­ingly popular breed and meat among western farmers and consumers.

“We´ll see what happens now because South Amer­ican breeders have also started to show an increasing interest in the Wagyu,” says Nina. Today, Australia and the US are by far the biggest producers of Wagyu meat outside Japan.

The entire Red Wagyu breed relies on the genetics from just 20 cows.

Nina Ander­sson

Wagyu producers in Sweden

There are just a dozen or so Wagyu beef farms in Sweden and, according to the National Board of Agri­cul­ture, there were roughly 2,500 head of pure or cross­bred Wagyus in the country in 2022. There is no industry organ­i­sa­tion for breeders, who currently exchange infor­ma­tion via social media.

The head count peaked at around 3,000 in 2017, but has again started to pick up as consumers are becoming more aware of the meat and its different taste and alleged nutri­tious value compared to conven­tional meat. It is the Wagyu’s marbled meat which is most valued.

“You can increase marbling in any cattle by feeding lots of concen­trate, but that is too expen­sive,” says John. “But you´ll never reach the level of marbling you see in the Wagyu. To do that you need its genetics.”

Imported Wagyu meat from black Wagyu, which has a rich marbling (see the scale on the right, approx. 8-10) and a fat content of around 45-50%.

Never­the­less, the Ander­ssons are paying a lot of atten­tion to their feed as it also affects the flavour of the meat and they have gone about almost on a mole­c­ular level, reflecting Nina´s educa­tion as a micro­bi­ol­o­gist. Their feed formula is a fine-tuned mixture of a number of herbs and grasses such as: English and Italian ryegrass, timothy, meadow-fescue, red and white clover, alfalfa, chicory, bird’s-foot trefoil and ribwort plan­tain. The feed mixtures they are working with aim to enhance the already posi­tive propri­eties and healthy fatty acids in the meat, and boost its Omega 3 and Omega 9 content.

“The DNA is the most impor­tant factor for the marbling, but the feed is almost as impor­tant,” says John. Their cattle will be entirely grass-fed; they manage their pasture with a special culti­vator and plan to re-seed every five year or so, with inter­mit­tent sowing of more sensi­tive grasses like English and Italian ryegrass which cannot survive the Nordic winters.

There are different beef marbling grading scales in different coun­tries, making quality diffi­cult to compare inter­na­tion­ally.

Marble Beef Score (MBS). Meat from an average Swedish super­market has a score of around 2 on the scale, while Nina and John Ander­sson hope to reach an MBS of around 6-7. Source: The Fat Cow. Illus­tra­tion: The Marble Beef Score.

The Swedish Market

Like most other Wagyu breeders, Nina and John plan to sell their meat directly to consumers via an online shop and, even­tu­ally a farm store. Wagyu beef is not widely avail­able in Swedish food retailers, and the number of restau­rants which serve Wagyu beef is prob­ably even fewer. Breeders are there­fore facing some marketing chal­lenges to reach consumers, who have been raised on lean meat and taught to shun fat. It’s the same in the abat­toir industry, which penalises meat if the fat content is too high. “Beef at a stan­dard super­market reaches only 2-2.5 on the 12-grade Marble Beef Score (MBS) and only one abat­toir gives you extra pay for marbling,” says Nina.

At the Renards­fält farm, they will try to reach half of that MBS, with a marbling grade at around 5-7. That will satisfy Nordic consumers, who John believes are not yet ready for the 12 grade which Japanese Black Wagyu breeders are aiming for. That meat has a fat content of around 50%. “A Swedish consumer would just pass beef like that.”

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