Just what is this Wagyu breed that everyone is talking about? It seems that lately every single Paddock to Plate competition is won by Wagyu beef – every time. By huge margins. Supreme Beef Award in Casino, in Adelaide, and Grand Champion Beef Grand Final in Brisbane. Year after year after year. Taste, tenderness and a very special fat and fine muscle fibre – Wagyu has it all over the others. Restaurants are discovering this unique breed, acknowledging the Wagyu hallmark of consistency – every Wagyu steak is as tender as the last. It’s just not possible to have a tough Wagyu steak. How did this happen? Why is Wagyu in a class all of its own?
The story goes back as much as 35,000 years. Japanese Wagyu derived from native Asian cattle and there is evidence that the Wagyu strain evolved as long as all that time ago. The history of Wagyu cattle is far removed from the near mystical status the animals have obtained in recent years. Even the name of the breed, Wagyu, has assumed mythic connotations, when in fact the word means “Japanese cattle.” The breed made its way from China, across the Korean Peninsula and into Japan during the second century, where Wagyu were used as draft animals to plough Japanese fields. Once the Japanese found that the animals were better on the plate than pulling a plough, the breed flourished. However, along the way, especially in the late 1800s, the Wagyu breed was infused with other British and European breeds, but after 1910 the breed was finally closed to outside “contamination”. Then, each of the various Japanese Prefectures, or provinces, bred these sacred cattle to enhance qualities they each perceived as desirable. Some prefectures bred for excellence of meat and finely marbled beef, but with smaller frame and lower growth rates. Others bred for good growth rate, quiet temperament and good fertility. Others bred the red strain of cattle still popular today, however 90% of Japanese Wagyu are black cattle.
Today in Japan the production of Wagyu beef is highly regulated and progeny testing is mandatory. The breed was declared a National Treasure by the government and export of the genetics was banned. However, in 1976, four bulls were exported to the USA and a crossbred Wagyu herd established in the USA. Since 1993, seeing that the horse had bolted, so to speak, import of Wagyu genetics have been allowed into the USA and thence to Australia, Canada and so on.
Some of the early pioneers in Australian Wagyu have been importing the breed at great expense since the early 1990s and some say their contribution to the Australian cattle industry is as important as that of John McArthur’s importing of the first Merino sheep was to the Australian sheep industry. The first Wagyu imported into Australia in 1990 was a female, soon followed by frozen semen and embryos and a shipment of five fullblood animals from Japan to USA in 1993. There were three other costly and long term importations of Wagyu genetics into Australia during the past twelve years, made difficult because there were no protocols for direct imports from Japan to Australia.
However, Australia has the best accumulation of Wagyu genetics outside of Japan, in a country free of those diseases which restrict exports from other countries. Australia is a clean, green supplier of Wagyu for the world, and the Australian Wagyu Association keeps it that way with mandatory DNA parent verification of all seedstock submitted for registration.
Next on the agenda is Wagyu Group Breed plan, an objective system of genetic evaluation.