What are Wagyu
What are WAGYU?
WAGYU - a Japanese beef cattle breed – derive from native Asian cattle. 'WAGYU' refers to ALL Japanese beef cattle, where 'Wa' means Japanese and 'gyu' means cow.
Wagyu were originally draft animals used in agriculture, and were selected for their physical endurance. This selection favored animals with more intra-muscular fat cells – ‘marbling’ – which provided a readily available energy source. Wagyu is a horned breed and the cattle are either black or red in color.
WAGYU Breed History in Japan
There is some evidence of genetic separation into the Wagyu genetic strain as much as 35000 years ago. Modern Wagyu cattle are the result of crossing of the native cattle in Japan with imported breeds. Crossing began in 1868 after the Meiji restoration in that year. The government wanted to introduce Western food habits and culture. Brown Swiss, Devon, Shorthorn, Simmental, Ayrshire, and Korean cattle were imported during this period. The infusions of these British, European and Asian breeds were closed to outside genetic infusions in 1910.
The variation of conformation within the Wagyu breed is greater than the variation across British and European breeds. The three major black strains - Tajiri (Tajima), Fujiyoshi (Shimane) and Kedaka (Tottori) evolved due to regional geographic isolation in Japan. These breeding differences have produced a Japanese national herd that comprises 90% black cattle with the remainder being of the red strains Kochi and Kumamoto.
In Japan there are four breeds that are considered Wagyu and those are the Japanese Black (the predominant Wagyu exported to the U.S), Japanese Brown (In the U.S. referred to as Red Wagyu and Akaushi), Japanese Polled and Japanese Shorthorn. There are no Japanese Polled or Shorthorns being bred outside Japan. Wagyu strains were isolated according to prefecture (state) and breeds imported for crossing were not the same in each prefecture.
The production of Wagyu beef in Japan is highly regulated and progeny testing is mandatory. Only the very best proven genetics are kept for breeding. Realizing the value of their unique product, the Japanese Government banned the export of Wagyu and declared them a national living treasure. Zenwa is the Government held entity in Japan that oversees the WAGYU registry for Japanese Black, Brown, Polled and Shorthorn.
Tajiri or Tajima
Originating from the Hyogo prefecture, these black cattle were originally used to pull carts and ploughs so they developed larger forequarters and lighter hindquarters. They are generally smaller framed with slower growth rates, but produce excellent meat quality with large eye muscle and superior marbling. They are thought to be ideal for the production of F1 cattle for slaughter. The Tajima bloodlines are generally regarded as producing the best quality meat in all of Japan and are known for being the lines that produce Kobe beef.
Fujiyoshi or Shimane
From the Okayama prefecture are medium framed cattle with average growth rates and good meat quality.
Tottori or Kedaka
From the Tottori prefecture were originally pack animals in the grain industry, so they are larger animals with straight, strong back lines and generally good growth rates. However, their meat quality is variable. Best strain for milking ability. Combinations of all 3 lines are often used for Fullblood meat production.
Kochi and Kumamoto
The “Red lines” as we call them in the US but known as Japanese Brown with Kochi and Kumamoto being the strain of Brown in Japan, have been strongly influenced by Korean (Hanwoo) and European breeds, particularly Simmental. Kochi strains have black noses and are built more like a Tajima, Kumamoto do not have black noses and are stockier than the Kochi. The Red Wagyu have no relation to the Japanese Black Cattle at all. In Japan the farmers are subsidized by the Government if they raise the Japanese Brown since it too is a declining breed similar to the Japanese Polled. It is critical for Wagyu breeders to understand the characteristics of each line when cross breeding to produce higher quality Wagyu beef. The American rancher must understand crossing the Red to the Japanese Black is crossing two different breeds of cattle but both being called Wagyu which only means “Japanese Cow”. The American Wagyu Association will still categorize Reds crossed to Blacks as 100% full blood but they are not according to genetics and the Japanese. A mistake possibly being lost in translation by the original importers. At this time the Association has no interest in correcting that mistake due to too many generations of cross breds being registered as 100% full bloods.
In 1916 Aberdeen Angus were crossed to indigenous cattle to create the Japanese Polled which gives the trait of hornless cattle most Americans are familiar with. In 1975 the Japanese crossed the Japanese Polled back to the Japanese Black to improve marbling that it had lost from the introduction of Angus cattle. In 1986 the Japanese stopped reporting carcass data on the Japanese Polled and it is now considered an at risk breed because it is not being used and consists of less than 1% (trace) of Japanese breeds. An interesting fact is Angus was only crossed to make the Polled in one Prefecture, the Yamaguchi Prefecture. All other crosses to the Japanese Blacks were mainly Short Horn, Devon, Brown Swiss and Ayrshire but no Angus. No Polled 100% Full Blood Japanese Blacks exist currently and it is not a trait we would seek out after seeing what the Japanese discovered.
The Japanese Shorthorn is raised mainly in the Tohoku Region. This breed was improved by crossbreeding the Shorthorn with the indigenous Nanbu Cattle. It has been continuously improved thereafter, until its certification as indigenous Japanese beef cattle in 1957. Its meat is very lean and has a mild and savory flavor. This breed has not been exported and consists of a very small number of cattle in Japan.
The production of Wagyu beef in Japan is highly regulated and progeny testing is mandatory. Only the very best proven genetics are kept for breeding. Realising the value of their unique product, the Japanese Government banned the export of Wagyu and declared them a national treasure. However in 1976, four bulls were exported to the United States and Wagyu were graded up from the American cow herd and was the beginning of a two decade window of Japanese genetics entering North America and filtering through to Australia and the rest of the world to today where Wagyu genetics exist on every continent even though actual numbers remain relatively low in comparison to the more popular beef breeds.
A HISTORY OF WAGYU EXPORT AND IMPORT
US WAGYU Today
The first Wagyu exported from Japan to the United States was in 1976 with the importation of two Full blood Black Bulls and two Full blood Red Bulls. The two Black Bulls were Mazda and Mt. Fuji. Mazda originated from the Tottori Prefecture and Mt. Fuji originated from Hyogo Prefecture. The two Red Bulls are Judo and Rueshaw. Both bulls originated from Kumamoto Prefecture. In 1989 the Japanese began to reduce their tariffs on imported beef and that encouraged U.S. producers to produce a high quality product for Japan. In the 1990’s there were several importations of quality Wagyu.
In 1993, Mannet Company Ltd. exported the first shipment of Full blood females along with two more bulls. The animals in this shipment were Michifuku and Haruki 2 and the three heifers Suzutani, Rikitani, and Okutani.
Michifuku is thought by some to be the most important bull to ever leave Japan and was formally the #1 marbling bull in the U.S. Sire Summary. He is Yasumi Doi on his sire side and Yasutanidoi J472 on the dam’s side. Yasutanidoi and Yasumi Doi are 2 of the most famous Tajima sires. It should be pointed out that Michifuku’s sire, Monjiro, produced carcasses that sold for $21,000 at the 2007 All Japan Wagyu Competition. Haruki 2 was a balanced combination of the major Wagyu bloodlines, Tajima, Kedaka, Itozakura and Shimane. Haruki 2 is 56% Tajima, 13% Itozakura, 19% Shimane and 6% Kedaka. Couple this with the fact that he was considered of good enough genetics to breed to arguably the greatest cow in Wagyu history, Suzutani, resulting in that outstanding bull Shigeshigetani.
Of the three heifers, Suzutani and Rikitani were the first 100% Tajima females to leave Japan and the third heifer Okutani was a unique breeding being 75% Tajima and 25% Shimane. All three heifers were chosen due to the fact that all had the great sire, Shigeshigenami in their pedigrees. Suzutani is considered the greatest Tajima to ever leave Japan with Okutani being equally as influential. The first full blood Wagyu born in the United States was born in 1994 from an embryo out of Okutani purchased for $50,000. The heifer calf was named Fujiko and was a mating of Okutani and Haruki 2. Fujiko became one of the most influential females of the breed, so influential that her DNA was sold for $26,000 in 2012 at the Texas Wagyu Association sale.
In 1994 Mannet Company Ltd. made a second shipment of Full blood Wagyu from Japan.This shipment consisted of two Black Bulls, four Black heifers safe in calf, three Red Bulls and nine Red heifers of which four were safe in calf.
The two Black Bulls were Kenhanafuji and Takazakura and four Heifers were Okahana, Kanetani, Nakagishi 5, and Nakayuki. The four calves that resulted in the matings done in Japan were Tanitsuru, Reiko, Nakazakura and Kitaguni Jr.
The three Red Bulls Tamamaru, Hikari, and Shigemaru and the nine Red cows were Naomi, Dai 3 Namiaki, Akiko, Haruko, Fuyuko, Ume, Dai 9 Kobai, Dai 8 Marunami, and Namiko.
The four animals born in the USA from the pregnancies conceived in Japan were Momigimaru, Kaedemaru, Big Al, and HB504.
Four of the Reds made their way to Canada and the remaining animals were sold to Englewood Farms in Texas.
Japanese Venture Partners or “JVP” also imported three Black Bulls in the fall of 1994 with those being Fukutsuru 068, Kikuyasu, and Yasutanisakura and ten Black Heifers and two Red Heifers. Fukutsuru 068 is the #1 marbling sire in the sire summary but it comes at a price with that being poor milking traits and weaker calves.
Takeda Farms first shipment of Wagyu arrived in the U.S. in 1995 consisting of 5 Black Bulls Terutani, Kikuhana, Itomichi 1/2, Itohana 2, and Kinto and 35 Black heifers with 8 of those females calving in the U.S. Itomichi 1/2 dam’s grandsire is 100% Tajama. This bull’s genetics consist of 13% Tajama, 2% Kadaka, 85% Shimane. His estimated weight was over 2000 lbs. Itomichi 1/2 has been used to increase mature size and growth rate without reducing marbling.
Westholme Wagyu partnered with ET Japan followed with their own shipment of 3 Black Bulls 001 Hirashigetayasu, 002 Itomoritaka, and 003 Kitateruyasu Doi and 84 Black heifers along with semen from three different Black Sires, 005 Shigefuku, 006 Dai 6 Seizan, and 007 Kitatsurukiku Doi. 005 Shigefuku is also a son of Dai 20 Hirashige who is a son of Kedaka. Shigefuku is a bull bred from within the main Kedaka lines and inherits strongly from Eiko. He also exhibits higher growth rates, body volume and desirable coat type.
Takeda Farms sent his second shipment of six Black Bulls Kikutsuru Doi, Itoshigefuji, Itoshigenami, Mitsuhikokura, Kikuterushige, Itozuru Doi and one Mishima Bull Kamui.
Mannet Company Ltd. sent their last shipment in 1997 with the arrival of one Black Bull Yasufuku Jr. and seven Black heifers Mitsutaka, Nakahana 5, Taguchi 9, Okuito 9, Hanateru 9, Kaneito and Hisako. Another one of the great Wagyu sires, Yasufuku is a son of Yasufuku J930 who sired three of the top marbling bulls in Japan and sired one champion and grandsired two more champions in the 9th Zenko 2007 All Japan Wagyu competition. One carcass sold for $97,000. Yasufuku Jr has many sons making their mark in this breed.
Soon after the last shipment left, with less than 200 fullblood wagyu being exported, the export ban was put back in place and no more fullblood genetics would ever leave Japan to this day. Most US production was exported to Japan until 2003 when BSE was discovered and Japan and other countries stopped the import of beef for the U.S. However, chefs and others in the U.S. were aware of the superior eating quality of Wagyu and the domestic market then and now utilize much of the U.S. production.