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.
A short introductory video on Wagyu beef (courtesy of the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries – MAFF)
What Makes Wagyu Beef a Humane Delicacy
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 or 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), 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 Wagy u 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 Gov’t 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 the 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, Kochi and Kumamoto, have been strongly influenced by Korean and European breeds, particularly Simmental. It is critical for Wagyu breeders to understand the characteristics of each line when cross breeding to produce higher quality Wagyu beef.
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 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.
US WAGYU Today
The American Wagyu Association was incorporated in Texas on March 14, 1990 and serves to register Wagyu cattle in the U.S., Canada and other countries. The Association headquarters are based in Post Falls, ID. The Association has a vibrant membership base and continues to promote and develop a sustainable industry here in the US.
The opportunities Wagyu beef can offer are endless. This industry caters for the breeder / feeder targeting the high end restaurant trade with highly marbled beef to the bull producer supplying the cow / calf rearer a crossbred alternative that will offer calving ease ability and premium carcass quality in a single cross which no other beef breed can come close too.
The Wagyu breed has a vital role to play in the US to increase the quality of red meat produced in the US that our health conscious consumer of the twenty first century is forever seeking.
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