By JrmApril 27,2017
If someone started to describe something that they’d eaten as intensely sweet and delicate with a smooth caramel and buttery flavour that melts in their mouth, you would probably think they were talking about anything other than beef. But this is in fact often how Wagyu beef is described.
You might have heard stories about Wagyu and how the cattle are massaged and fed with beer. Most consumers don’t really know what all the fuss is about and it can sometimes be brushed off as an overpriced piece of meat. That is until you’ve tasted it. For once you have tried this juicy piece of steak and felt the fat melting in your mouth, and experienced its mature yet subtle sweetness and tenderness, once you have experienced that, there will be no doubt in your mind what all that fuss is about.
We were intrigued to find out more about Wagyu production in Australia and if the rumours are true that you need to massage your cows and feed them beer in order to get this succulent and oh so tender meat. During one of JRM’s recent visits to Melbourne, we had the pleasure to sit down with the son of award winning and internationally recognised full blood Wagyu Beef producer, David Blackmore. David’s son Ben told us all about how his father got into the Wagyu beef industry and the very intricate breeding system that they operate.
The name Wagyu directly translates to Japanese Cow and has throughout history been treated with the most highly regarded respect and care. Surprisingly, this breed was not originally produced for consumption but was for hundred of years used as a working cow. Historically in Japan, horses were strictly reserved for the military, so cows were used as the primary source of transportation and labour within the community. The Buddhist leaders had also banned the consumption of meat, so it was not until the 1870’s that they started eating beef in Japan.
Up until that point, the Wagyu cow had been treated as a family member and was used for chores such as ploughing the fields, transporting luggage, working in the mines, etc. This indicated that the Wagyu was originally bred to be a muscular animal that could work hard during the day and recover overnight, to do it all again the next day. Therefore, the cows were well-fed, massaged and put in comfortable stables where they would be exposed to minimal stress. When they were restless or during the cold winter months, they would also be fed beer to stimulate the acid in their stomach and increase their appetite. The Japanese have closely recorded the Wagyu’s family history and life, and the cattle are still to this day treated as their national treasure.
So how did a dairy farmer’s son become a pioneer of full blood Wagyu in Australia? Well, you might assume that he somewhere along the way would have imported a Wagyu cow and bull and that it naturally escalated from there, but oh, no. In fact Ben’s father, David Blackmore started breeding Wagyu in Australia in the 1990’s without the presence of a Wagyu cow or bull. So how is this possible?
Together with a friend, they started a business that worked on commercialising the process and taking it out of the laboratory and onto farms. David would then travel around the world and consult to farmers and breeders all over. It was on one of these trips that he first came across the Wagyu breed.
So let’s get this clear, David Blackmore didn’t actually import the cattle to Australia, just the embryos. These were then put into “loving and caring surrogate cows”, who would then give birth to some of the first full blood Wagyu outside of Japan. It’s astonishing what can be done with science.
Today you will find a lot of Wagyu on the world market, and although the number is increasing, not a lot of the production is in full blood Wagyu. Most commonly you might come across Wagyu that is “cross-bred”. According to Australian standards that only needs to indicate that 50% of the bloodline is Wagyu, whereas, in Japan, anything that is crossbred is not allowed to be called Wagyu at all.
So what is so special about Wagyu beef?
The Wagyu cow is an incredibly muscular animal, and its intricate marbling is a recognisable trademark of the beef. This marbling tells us that the muscle is finely integrated with monounsaturated fat, (which is the good kind of fat that helps lower cholesterol). One important aspect of this is that it has a very, very low melting point, which gives the beef its “melt in the mouth” texture and tenderness. When cooked, the marbling is absorbed into the muscle and gives the meat its tenderness and flavour.
Breeding full blood Wagyu is a lengthy and costly process and often requires additional care as the cattle needs to be micro managed and looked after 24/7. At the Blackmore Farm they have around 3500 cows to date, so you can imagine how much work and attention that goes into their product.
When David Blackmore set up the Wagyu breeding here in Australia, he did extensive research and monitoring of the traditions of Japanese farming. He soon realised that a priority would be to breed his cows to be more subjectable to the Australian climate and lifestyle. Up until this point, Wagyu’s had been raised by hand in Japan, and they were not used to grazing in paddocks and open fields. They were used to being fed in sheds and looked after as one of the family.
For the Blackmore family, it has been important to have a very sustainable and caring approach to their breeding program, and everything has been carefully documented along the way. Every cow that has gone through the Blackmore Farm has been closely monitored from birth with comprehensive records detailing birth weight, feeding plan, weight gain and any treatments that they may have gone through. Through this carefully kept data, they can today trace all of their cattle back to parents, grandparents and in some cases even as far back as to the early 19th century in Japan.
The current timeline from the moment that one of the Blackmore cows falls pregnant to “meat hitting the plate” is just under four years. This means that when they decide to make changes to the breeding program, no matter how small, they will have to wait eight years before they can analyse its effect on the meat. This is an extraordinary process that can only be the lifetime hobby of a perfectionist.
But not all their cattle are bred for meat. Of their 3500 cows, 1500 are maintained as breeders to produce beef for consumption and replacement breeders. These two processes are very different and require different care depending on what size, texture and level of marbling that is desired.
When talking about Wagyu in the consumer world, you will often hear about the different grades: this indicates the amount of marbling within the Ribeye muscle. Here in Australia the highest grade is 9+, which often means that it’s a full blood rather than a crossbred Wagyu, although not all full-blood reaches this grade.
Traditional Wagyu was often fed with high fibre foods like hay, wheat bran, corn and soybean. Blackmore felt they needed to take more responsibility for the environmental dangers of grain feeding and has developed a secret recipe of by-products from produce made for human consumption; like leftovers from making beer and flour. By doing so, they not only support the local producers in helping them get rid of their waste, but they also defer from using grains of which their production and waste are harmful to the environment.
“Our goal is to feed our cattle things that they would naturally eat if they were out in the paddock after they have been used for human food production”. It has taken years to develop the right ratio of the different ingredients to create the unique flavour and fat content in the beef. The Blackmore’s are very aware of the impact of their industry and are looking for ways they can make their production as sustainable as possible for both animal and nature, as well as keeping the cost of the final product as affordable as possible for the consumers.
As David has started to look towards a retirement plan, Ben is looking to take over the day to day running of the business. Although Ben tells us how he is not sure his dad will ever retire, “He recently found a new breed on one of our travels, that he is looking to import and I think the ‘retirement plan’ is to see where that will take him.”
So what will be Ben’s focus in the next couple of years?
“There are many challenges facing agriculture in Australia in the future, one being the cost of producing quality food while keeping up with demand. The land is a significant cost, as is water, electricity and staff. We face a lot of challenges, and it’s already an expensive product. My primary focus will be to try and combat a lot of this. We need to be consistent to have a consistent product.”
It was never Ben’s intention to join the family business, as he left the farm to study Business Marketing and ended up working for a couple of different Japanese wholesale import and exporters, (where he gained a good understanding of the culture and history behind Japanese produce). But throughout the years he saw his father’s dedication and love for what he does and became smitten with the intricate work and dedication that is the Blackmore Farm. There is a strong sense of pride and excitement in Bens way of describing the farm and the history of their animals.
If not before, it is clear that he now shares that passion, dedication and perfectionism that has made Blackmore Wagyu the pride and joy of Australia’s meat industry.
Written by: Kristin Jonasson Communications Manager | JRM Hospitality