The end of the beginning

It’s been a long time since the last post here, closer to two years than one. I had planned to do more in the meantime, but then harvest intervened, then Nuffield travels, then a baby. Also, by this point, things had changed. A lot.

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This was the first picture I took, over five years ago now, of “my” heifers, at a farm near Hertford. Actually as it turned out, this one never came to me as it failed a blood test – but three of her herd mates did

Back when I started, it had all been for fun, and to get some delicious meat. By the winter of 2014/5 I had over 60 animals; it was too big for a hobby. Unfortunately, I just wasn’t enjoying it any more. I don’t normally worry about too much, but 95% of the stress in my life was coming directly from my cattle. Do I have enough feed? Do they have enough space? How can I get them penned up for a blood test? Where am I going to sell the meat? All of these, and more, kept me awake at night.

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My first Wagyu calf, February 27th 2012

I’ve often told people you can’t be a great arable farmer and a great livestock farmer. One always takes priority, and the other suffers. Maybe that was just my excuse for being a poor stockman? Whatever, it seemed fairly obvious that I either needed to get another 200 animals and employ someone who knew what they were doing, or get rid of everything. The first option was flirted with for the best part of a year, but never reached a satisfactory conclusion. So that left only one thing to do, and at the beginning of 2015 I decided – everything had to go.

It was a really hard choice to make, just because of all the effort, and at the risk of sounding terribly pretentious, emotional energy, that had been invested. I cast around for someone to buy the whole lot in one go, but the offers weren’t terribly tempting. In the end the bulk went to one farm, and three others took between one and a dozen animals.

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The last Wagyu leave Thriplow, December 17th 2015. Sad face emoji

I did keep a couple of steers, one a fullblood (00002, my second born) and the other a dairy cross that had ben bought in. They were finished on our special-secret-sauce Ushigumi recipe, and eventually, after a lot of buggering around, killed and butchered.

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Burgers at our local pub

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A friend’s restaurant in London

The cross animal ended up with a couple of restaurants, and so I got the experience that I’d been waiting five years for; eating my beef somewhere proper, and perhaps even better, watching strangers enjoy it too.

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6 week dry aged, 38 month old fullblood Wagyu ribs, raw and slow smoked. Plus a sirloin

The entire of the fullblood animal ended up in my freezer, or actually three of them to be precise. He weighed a tonne (literally) when he was killed, so I’ve ended up with around 300kg of meat. Needless to say, it’s a good time to visit me if you like being sent home with beef. Christmas lunch will be a three-rib roast, and it tastes just as good as I had hoped.

So that’s the end. Right? Well not necessarily, I’ve still got plenty of frozen embryos, and some potential plans of how to use them (some are for sale by the way, nudge nudge, wink wink). I’m convinced, with experience to back it up, that there is money to be made from Wagyu, which can’t be said of the standard beef industry. Unfortunately it’s just not for me. Not right now anyway.

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Not A Holiday

I’ve spent plenty of time in the US in my life – I even have one of their passports which makes life a bit easier when I visit. This though was my first time in the mid west, almost all my previous trips had been to the east coast. My first night was spent in Chicago, where I ate in a goat themed restaurant – standing up at the bar after a woman stole my chair – then took a lift to the 103rd floor of the Willis [Sears] tower, and finally ate a deep dish pizza. I prefer thin crust, but when in Chicago…

3517 miles in 11 days

3517 miles in 11 days

The next day I jumped back in the car and headed north through Wisconsin to a small town called Augusta. Here Michael Goodell runs a Wagyu breeding and finishing business called Muddy Flats Cattle. True to its name, it was indeed muddy (and fairly flat now I think about it).

Augusta WI, not to be mistaken for Augusta GA

Augusta WI, not to be mistaken for Augusta GA

Michael used to be a chef, and then turned into a property guy. I can’t remember more specifically than that what he does, it was a while ago and I didn’t take notes. But he retained his love of food, and hence the foray into Wagyu. He is a rarity in that he both breeds and fattens animals on his farm, whereas most animals in the US are sent off to specialised feed lots for finishing.

Muddy & Flat & Cattle

Muddy & Flat & Cattle

Having just come from a disastrous embryo result, he comforted with even worse horror stories;  one live calf from 33 embryo transfers. Everyone I visited on this trip had similar stories, aside from one guy, whose name I will not mention. He was either very lucky, or one of those gamblers who forgets the bad results!

Next up was a specialist Wagyu feedlot in Iowa, called A to Z Feeders. By UK standards this is a big operation, with around 1,000 head of cattle on feed at any one point. But in the land of 100,000+ head feedlots, this is fairly modest. They also have a bit of a side line in breeding Wagyu, both Fullbloods and Angus crosses.IMG_1068

All the feed rations are custom blended on the farm by loading them from bulk storage into mixer trucks, which then go straight out to the pens. Each cattle owner can specify which diet they would like to use, but the main constituents are byproducts from the maize-ethanol plants in the surrounding areas. These chuck out a LOT of material, and hence there are correspondingly large numbers of feedlots around them. It’s good to be efficient and use waste products like this, especially when the end result is so tasty. However, we would not get away with this sort of feedlot in the UK – no bedding & no shelter would get the RSPCA on you fairly quickly I would imagine. The cattle seemed happy enough though, so it could just be a difference in perception.

Moving house, USA style

Moving house. Literally

The following few days were taken up with mucking around looking at real work stuff; arable farms in Nebraska & South Dakota. Incidentally it was these, very interesting, visits which made me think I should apply for another Nuffield Scholarship when I got home.

Heading south from Pierre SD, back into Nebraska, I stopped at a ranch in an area of such poor quality soil that when it was first settled the families who stopped there were given four times as much land as normal, so they could make a living. Morgan Ranch is predominantly a Hereford breeding farm, but they have also branched out into Wagyu. Dan Morgan has invested a lot of effort into making export markets for his beef (all Angus crosses), and now a lot of it gets sent air freight to Germany.IMG_1153

The day I happened to be visiting turned out to be the real deal cowboy experience. 450 calves were tagged, branded, vaccinated, steered and dehorned in just over four hours. It was a pretty slick operation, involving at least a dozen people, several of whom had jingling/jangling spurs. In the afternoon, after it was all over, a couple of Wagyu bulls had managed to find their way into this Hereford herd. This meant I got to play cowboy myself and jump on a horse to move them back into their own paddock. They did not trust me with a lasso for some reason, maybe because I was not wearing chaps.

Readers of previous blogs will recognise the name Savery Creek, which is Tom Seitz’s (and his wife’s) ranch in Wyoming. He is a South Park loving university lecturer turned Wagyu breeder who has sold me embryos in the past, and as I write this he is doing the paperwork on another batch of 60 to come over next month. One of the main reasons for this trip was to find out about what I should be feeding my animals to finish them, and Tom very usefully gave me the details of a Japanese ration. The problem was that it was in Japanese, but with a bit of help from Google Translate, and my basic knowledge of the two simple Japanese alphabets (there is a third, much much harder one that I have no clue about) I figured it out eventually.

Wagyu burger. By this point I was really craving food that was not fried meat

Wagyu burger. By this point I was really craving food that was not fried meat

What does it say? Well I can’t give up ALL the secrets, but the basic gist is that they are very low in protein, and are designed to be fed over the course of at least three years. We are talking 12% CP at the end of the animals life, although the nutritionalist at A to Z told me he found anything less than 14% could cause problems. Personally I am not using this Japanese diet verbatim, as I want to create something local to our area, not ape a different country’s product. Time will tell if this is a good approach.

The final leg of this drive was down to New Mexico, where a retired Hollywood film producer called Bob Estrin has a ranch, called Lone Mountain Cattle Company. Bob is fanatical about Fullblood Wagyu, and would not entertain the idea of crossing them with any other breed. I was told by someone that about 95% of the Fullblood Wagyu being fattened in the US are from LMCC, but we are only talking about 400 a year in total for the whole country – and maybe 2,000 in the entire world outside Japan.IMG_1204

The cattle are born and raised in New Mexico until they are around 18 months old, and then they go elsewhere to be finished. I can not think of many harsher places to farm. It is very hot in the summer, and very cold in the winter (-20C to +45C), and very dry all the time. The photo above shows pretty well the amount of grazing available in the 2000 acre paddocks. Needless to say, a lot of feed is brought in on the back of a truck.

I could not say if this is an economical way to produce meat, but I can say that it is exceptionally, world-beatingly, good stuff. Theoretically, I could have taken some back to the UK and organised a blind tasting in London with 15 chefs, butchers and journalists, and theoretically it could have come out on top of the other nine steaks on offer, 5 of which would have been Wagyu. But as this would have been illegal I could not do it, which was a shame.

Lone Mountain Wagyu

Lone Mountain Wagyu

What I could do was order some ribeyes off the internet, and get them delivered to my next stop in Seattle. They cost $67 per steak, but I can honestly say this is stonkingly good value for money, especially as one steak will feed to very hungry people. If I can approach this quality from my own animals iI will be very happy indeed.

By now I only had a few days left, and as I just mentioned, there was a quick stop in Seattle. Here I went to see Ralph Valdez at Crescent Harbor Ranch. Ralph has been involved in the US Wagyu industry since the beginning, over 20 years ago. Most of the top genetics flow from or through him at some point, and he is who supplied my first embryos back at the end of 2010. Coming from the desert in New Mexico to this very lush part of the country was a culture shock; he even had grass growing to feed his animals, including this rather eccentric looking bull:

IMG_1758Although Ralph does kill a few steers, he is basically a specialised breeder – along with Bob Estrin they form the hard core of the Fullblood fanatics in the US. He was very keen for me to get more into the breeding side, which is certainly pretty interesting, and a good counterpoint to focusing solely on meat. We are very limited in Europe when it comes to Wagyu genetics, and all the top bulls that are used in the US & Australia are not qualified to be imported here. As we are a small industry none of the big players have bothered with it, so I am starting soon to import semen from the US, which should speed up the genetic improvements we can make. And that has to be the main goal of farming cattle?

An excellent trip, and of course, definitely, Not A Holiday.image

A Mug’s Game

So it’s now early 2012, and I have three fullbood Wagyu on the ground – smooth sailing. Obviously at this point the thing to do is scale up a bit. It is at this point that people started asking me “What are your plans for these animals? Where are you going to sell them? etc etc”. I didn’t have a good answer then, and I still don’t today. Ask again in a few years perhaps. Anyway, I digress.

I phoned up the Simmental breeder, but it was a little late in the spring, and most of her heifers had been sold already. On top of this they are a little expensive, around £1400 each if I recall correctly. The next port of call was the British Farming Forum, where I posted a request for a dozen heifers from a closed herd, breed [relatively] unimportant. This raised a few eyebrows – who wants to buy a heifer but doesn’t care what breed it is? Nonetheless, my call was answered and a couple of months later a truck turned up at the farm.

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A dozen 24 month old pedigree Sussex heifers

Having pedigree animals is a side effect of only buying from closed herds, but these were a sensible price, so not a problem. On the same subject, as well as coming from closed herds, I always get new animals tested for BVD, Lepto & Johnnes before they arrive. The last thing I want is to pick up some chronic disease that gets my whole herd – however small it may be.

Sussex are known for being a fairly placid breed, but these ones had spent most of their life wandering around Romney Marsh, not seeing people from one day to the next. To begin with, they were decidedly unimpressed with being put through a crush; one in particular sticks in my memory for the time it tried to get out of the crush, not by going backwards or forwards, but by going up.

Mob Grazing in the sun

Mob Grazing in the sun

I had a bit of a problem at this point. There were 15 animals ready to go through an embryo transfer program, but I only had two embryos in the tank. Over-planning has never been a problem for me in this venture. I spoke to Ralph at Crescent Harbor, who had sold me the first batch, and he was just about to do a flush for some new embryos. We agreed another deal, and I set the program going as I was keen to have these calves before the cattle were turned out in spring 2013. Unfortunately, it turned out that embryos created in the US must wait 30 days before they can become eligible for export to the EU – and this took them past the date I needed them by. Missing this date would not only mean I had wasted money on drugs & vets, but we would be getting into harvest before I could do it again. Luckily I had previously been speaking with Tom Seitz at Savery Creek, a Wagyu breeder from Wyoming. Incredibly, he managed to get the deal turned around and shipped with FedEx in less than a fortnight. The timing was still very tight, and I was worried that the delivery might go astray, so I called to ask if it was possible for me to pick up the canister directly from the FedEx warehouse at Stansted airport. The official answer is that this is possible in only one circumstance – medical emergencies. I never lied, but when the man at Stansted saw on his paperwork that I wanted to pick up a tank of liquid nitrogen containing embryos, he must have assumed that I met the criteria. I received a phone call at around midnight one evening telling me that the tank had cleared customs, and I drove down straight away to pick it up. Two days late we implanted twelve embryos, sired by some of the top bulls available; Takazakura, Kitaguni Jr, Haruki II, Michifuku & Shigeshigetani. By this point it was mid July, and we started harvest a few days later.

October soon came around, and there was again time to muck about with cattle. Bob Brittain came out and did a PD (pregnancy check) and any that weren’t pregnant got started on another embryo transfer program. The result was seven pregnancies from twelve embryos; 58% is perfectly acceptable so I was happy. A couple of weeks later we implanted another 5 embryos, and then moved them all out to graze on what was at the time a very novel experiment for us, a cover crop.

Wow, these photos are terrible!

Wow. These photos are terrible

It was at around this point I applied for a Nuffield Scholarship, with my proposed topic being the potential for Wagyu cattle in the UK. I was turned down flat, not even an interview. I was subsequently told that it appeared to be only a rich man’s hobby, not a serious proposition. Perhaps they were right.

An incredibly handsome stranger surveys the cattle

An incredibly handsome stranger surveys the cattle

The cover crop gave me six weeks extra grazing, which was lucky as I had not yet installed the locking feed barriers in my winter housing. These barriers really save me so much time, I wouldn’t be without them now. Pushing animals into crushes is so last century, it’s just a shame I still have to do it…

By this point I was very enthusiastic on the whole situation, so I called up the friendly farmer in Sussex with an idea. He would set aside 15 heifers for me, and I would implant the embryos whilst they were still on his farm. I would then buy any animals that were successful, and at the same time sell any of mine that were not also pregnant. An ideal situation for me as it cut out a lot of the hassle. So in March 2013 we implanted thirteen embryos on his farm, and four on ours.

The birth of OOO Hayley Belle

The birth of OOO Hayley Belle

In the meantime it was calving. The first needed a helping hand, but turned out fine. She is named after my friend who happened to be passing by, and kindly stepped in. The second was a bull calf, which was just what I had been hoping. He has a particularly excellent pedigree, and I wanted to keep him as my herd’s first bull. But a problem now became apparent. I was expecting five more calves, but it was obvious that only three more heifers were getting ready to calve. The next calf was a heifer, and then two more bulls, who were destined to become steers. But no sign of the others. At some point between being PDed at three months, and coming inside at six months, two pregnancies had disappeared. This was pretty hard to stomach after all I had gone through, and it remains a mystery to this day.

But better was to come. Of the seventeen embryos implanted in March, it turned out that fourteen had failed. Three at our farm, and eleven in Sussex. Sometimes I liken embryo transfer to smoking £50 notes, and this was hot-boxing a briefcase full.

But I couldn’t stop now. I had already planned a trip to the US that left in a few weeks, to visit a load of guys working in different parts of the Wagyu industry. Nuffield didn’t give me a scholarship, but there were still lots of things I needed to know. Even if I was very ambivalent towards the whole project at the time, my tickets were booked.

In the beginning there was…beef

It’s hard to believe that this is the reason Ushigumi exists. Even taking into account how bad iPhone cameras were on March 15th 2009, this is not an appetising looking plate of food.A1We were in Japan just as plain old tourists, but I had grown up hearing about the legendary Kobe Beef; massaged, fed with beer, etc etc. Where better to try it out than Kobe itself? The restaurant was a mid range place, called A1. The meat was excellent, so good in fact that I instantly turned into a beef snob and have rarely bought beef since. [Incidentally, in Japan puddings are not a strong point, but Kobe has a Haagen Dazs shop, so I finished this meal in one of my favourite manners – with a helping of Pralines & Cream]. The seed was sown.

Back at home I wondered, how does one get hold of some Wagyu animals? By the way, the breed is called Wagyu (actually that’s not strictly true but it’s easier to think of it like that), and Kobe beef is Wagyu that comes from the area surrounding Kobe. It’s a bit like the difference between sparkling wine and Champagne. At the time I had just started work on the family farm, and I had access to a few acres of grassland, so that was one hurdle cleared. It didn’t seem possible to actually buy live animals – no one wanted to sell. Then my sister, who is a vet in the US, told me it was possible to buy frozen embryos. This means that instead of using frozen semen with a normal cow, and getting a 50% Wagyu animal, you implant a 100% Wagyu embryo into a recipient animal, and get a 100% baby. That was the plan anyway. How naive.

With this idea forming in my head, I had to find some recipient cows to put the embryos in to. Bear in mind that I had literally zero experience with cattle at this point in my life, so I was feeling my way around, largely in the dark. I spoke to “my vet” who suggested buying from a closed herd, so as to reduce chances of getting diseased cows. This sounded sensible (and I still stick rigidly to the principle), so he found me a nearby herd of Simmentals. I dropped by one evening to take a look at them. “Which ones do you want?” asked the farmer. Well, I didn’t have a clue, so I chose three randomly.

Two of the three heifers I bought in 2010. I still have these animals - they are excellent embryos recipients, and are both pregnant with their third calves as I write this

Two of the three heifers I bought in 2010. I still have these animals – they are excellent cows. Both are pregnant with their third calves as I write this

Next I had to get hold of some embryos. There are two options here; buy from the US or from Australia. Being of American descent I chose the former. After a lot of searching online I came across Ralph Valdez at Crescent Harbor Ranch in Washington State. I was pointed to him by a couple of guys, so without any better ideas, I forged ahead. It turned out Ralph is probably the preeminent Wagyu breeder in the US (can I have a discount next time please), so I was in good hands. I decided early on to only import the absolute highest quality genetics that were available – if you’re going to do something like this, it is worth doing it properly. We struck a deal for eight excellent embryos to begin with, which is really a stupidly small amount to import, as I found out shortly afterwards. First of all I had to buy a cryo tank to hold the liquid nitrogen during shipping, then, and this was a really nasty surprise, I had to pay a stupendous amount to clear customs at Heathrow. For example, I was charged £180 just for the tank to be unloaded off the plane and driven a mile to a warehouse. Plenty more similar fees were stacked on top, and I ended up with eight very expensive embryos.

At this point my heifers were still living on the farm I had bought them from. We decided to do the embryo transfers there, and so I paid for a vet to come out three times to get them ready, then again to implant the embryos, and again to do a pregnancy check after a month or so. I don’t want to calculate how much these first three transfers cost me, it is too scary. It would have been worth it had they worked – but none of them did. Very sad playboy farmer.

I was now stuck in a dilemma. I owned three heifers, and five embryos that didn’t appear to be much more than magic beans. Cutting and running was seeming like a pretty good option. I made a few phone calls, and was put in touch with a specialist embryologist who lives only 35 miles away from me. Bob Brittain has been involved in embryo transfers pretty much from the start of the technology, and he told me about the realities of using frozen embryos – but we decided to try again. I paid more attention to the heifers’ vitamins this time, and tried to follow the nutritional advice that Bob gave me. Unfortunately I misheard, and I kept them on very meagre rations until after the transfers had been done – the opposite of what I should have done. Oops.

Mizu is born

Mizu at about 30 minutes of age

But somehow it worked, and we got three pregnancies in three heifers, with three embryos. I doubt Bob has ever seen someone so pleased with such a small number of successes, but it was my first taste of the embryo transfer roller coaster. On February 27th 2012, my first calf was born. She is called Mizu (水) which means water in Japanese. Her brother was born a few days later, and he is called Tani (谷) which means valley. Mizutani is the name of my favourite sushi restaurant in Tokyo. About six weeks later A1 was born – if you’ve been reading since the start you will know where that name came from.

I often tell people that my cattle are responsible for 95% of the stress in my life, and it all stemmed from about this point. What had I done?