THE NEED FOR SEED
Twenty years ago, Japan exported a small group of prized cattle. Tracing its progeny has since become the preoccupation of breeders, chefs and beef fans. Here's how one Ontario farmer became a globally sought-after source for the stuff Wagyu cows are made of
There are two ways of getting semen from a bull, the prod or the gomer. Neither is particularly romantic.
The gomer (possibly named after the biblical wife of Hosea or maybe Gomer Pyle, the titular nincompoop hero of Jim Nabors's 1960s television program), says cattle breeder Ken Kurosawatsu, is a dummy cow that a bull will hop on in an attempt to mate, while a technician waits to catch the sample.
The other method sounds even less pleasant for the bull, though more efficient. "Sometimes they'll do what they call electro-ejaculation," says Kurosawatsu, which involves the bull's prostate and an electric prod.
Kurosawatsu owns Wagyu Sekai, a 200-acre farm in Puslinch, Ont., outside of Guelph. About 70 per cent of his revenue is from the sale of wagyu genetics (an industry umbrella term that includes semen, eggs, embryos and live animals sold for breeding). The collection is done off-site at inspected facilities, and he ships all over the world – Brazil, Argentina, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Sweden, Ireland – to buyers using it to propagate their herds.
True Wagyu cows are rare outside of Japan. Nearly everything on the international market are hybrid descendants of a carefully traced group of cattle released from Japan during a window of export in the 1990s. Within this already niche corner of the beef market, Wagyu Sekai is its own niche, exclusively raising 100-per-cent full-blood Wagyu and focusing on genetics sales, rather than meat.
"Wagyu Sekai is definitely the first full-blood Wagyu breeder in Canada," says Steve Bennett, a beef consultant in Sydney, Australia. "Their knowledge of the original foundation genetics is unrivalled."
Kurosawatsu's father grew up in a cattle family in Miyazaki, Japan. He came to Ontario in the late 1960s to work on dairy farms, and liked the high health standards in Canada, as well as the availability of feed and water quality. He decided to stay here to raise cattle and a family.
Sekai was originally focused on Holsteins and still retained some dairy cattle until as late as 2009. But when Japan began temporarily lifting its export ban, Kurosawatsu went there to work for Mannet, the company that first exported full-blood Wagyu.
"There were less than 200 Wagyu animals that ever left," says Kurosawatsu. "You go to Australia, Brazil, Argentina, anywhere in the EU, all of their animals are traced back to the original 200."
The Sekai website proudly states, as if name-dropping celebrities, that its Wagyu are direct offspring of the Suzutani, Okutani, Rikitani, Kanetani, Okahana and Kinu bloodlines. "A sire renowned for his great meat qualities," reads a biography of the father of Takamichi Doi, a breeding bull born in 2007. "He hails from one of the most famous cow families in Japan known as Kikutsuru."
That heritage is valuable, even when it's less than pure. Carcass data provides records for what ranchers value; expected weights, rib-eye size, backfat and rib thickness. "But typically guys'll buy on pedigree," says Kurosawatsu.
"Ninety-five per cent of anything you can find of Wagyu heritage is exactly 50-per-cent Wagyu," says Shane Lindsay, president of Mishima Ranch in Colorado, which processes 100 head of cattle a week, all of it Wagyu cross-bred with Angus.
Lindsay says being able to trace the bloodline back to Japan is essential. It's the only way to be certain of the characteristics that breeders are looking for. He describes the Wagyu bull as super-aggressive, a great breeder able to get a lot of cows pregnant.
Most breeding is done naturally, on farms around the United States, the calves shipped to Colorado at eight months. But ranchers are sometimes dealing with radically different sized animals. That's when it's necessary to buy sperm from someone like Kurosawatsu for artificial insemination.
"A breeding bull can weigh 2,000 pounds. And these heifers only weigh 800. So you can imagine the logistical difficulties of mating those two animals together," says Lindsay. "It's like a Great Dane breeding a Yorkie. They can't handle it."
After the bull interacts with either the gomer or the prod, the semen is divided into small portions (between a quarter and a half cubic centimetre) known in the business as straws. Wagyu bulls average about four or five hundred straws per ejaculate, and each costs between $5 and a $2,000. That's a good deal both for the earning potential of Sekai, and the pocketbooks of ranchers who don't want to shell out $50,000 for a live animal.
Sekai's bulls live about 10 years, while the cows can hit two decades. Semen, on the other hand, lasts forever. "We have been using semen on bulls from the original shipments from Japan for embryo production, says Kurosawatsu, "making the semen 20-plus years old."
While Kurosawatsu's business is semen, he does raise a bit of beef. It is not cheap.
"The whole idea of raising Wagyu beef is, it's not as fast as you can, as quick as you can, as cheap as you can," says Kurosawatsu. He raises Wagyu for beef for 36 months before slaughter, which is roughly double that of standard beef.
"Because you want the animals to grow naturally. So you're not trying to push those four or five pounds a day gains," he says. "You limit the gains over a longer period of time. And that's how you get your flavouring into your beef, your marbling."
Wagyu Sekai only process two animals for beef a month, from a herd of about 150, and it is expensive. The prized beef goes to Nellie James, a restaurant/caterer in Dundas, Ont., or to Jacobs & Co., a fancy steakhouse in Toronto.
At Jacob's, the steaks are priced in the same range as American or Australian Wagyu, between $182 and $240 for a strip loin (which is still a fraction of the cost of a Japanese Wagyu steak, which can cost up to $800). Some of the meat is purchased privately, going from a low of about $7 a pound for ground chuck to $90 a pound for prime cuts.
The intricate web of fat streaking through Wagyu is to Angus as the Tokyo subway system maze is to Toronto's three disconnected lines. The combination of grassy, mushroomy flesh and fat that melts on your tongue is less like a traditional steak than a fat-pocked cotechino sausage or a beef-flavoured Starburst candy. Many diners don't even like true Wagyu when and if they taste it.
"Ken's beef is very tender, but meaty at the same time," says Danny McCallum, executive chef of Jacobs, where customers try to slip their phone numbers to servers to get a call as soon as Wagyu came in. "Whereas Japanese is just all tenderness and no meatiness to sink your teeth into, which can be too much for some people."
One last note: if you've enjoyed a "Kobe beef slider" it probably wasn't Kobe beef. "Kobe beef" is a trademark-protected name for Wagyu from Hyogo prefecture in Japan and it's incredibly expensive. Cheaper beef is often incorrectly (and fraudulently) labelled as Kobe beef.
If the price of real Wagyu beef is too rich, you can always buy the materials and grow your own. But whether it's steak or semen, you get what you pay for.