Wagyu breeders gather for annual convention
Genetic improvement and beef quality are top of mind for Wagyu breeders
More than 250 Wagyu breeders from across the U.S. and internationally gathered Sept. 23-25 in Fort Collins, Colo., for the opening sessions of the 2021 “Wagyu: An Elevated Experience” annual convention.
The convention featured two days packed with educational sessions designed to help Wagyu breeders better serve their customers and, by extension, the beef marketing complex in the U.S. and abroad.
Morning sessions on Friday, Sept. 24, focused on both outward and inward looks at the beef business and the Wagyu breed. Dr. James Pritchett, dean of the College of Agriculture at Colorado State University, challenged Wagyu breeders to focus on the drivers of change in beef production and agriculture.
Those drivers are a growing population worldwide while incomes are increasing at the same time, he said. That means protein demand, and particularly beef, will continue to grow. However, consumer preferences are changing as things like quality, healthfulness and safety of the beef supply become top of mind. That puts more pressure on food suppliers and thus, more pressure on beef producers.
Beyond that, Pritchett said technology’s role in agriculture will become more prevalent, as will government involvement, both good and bad. Finally, a changing climate puts pressure on beef producers as it affects rangelands and crops. Over time, that may pressure changes in cattle genetics to adapt.
American Wagyu Association board member Jenny Tweedy updated breeders on the association’s carcass data collection program. Since the beginning of 2021, more than 4,000 carcass genotypes have been submitted and phenotypic data collection such as marbling score, carcass weight and others will begin soon.
To help the genetic progress of the Wagyu breed, the CSU Department of Animal Science is evaluating all the pedigrees in the breed and doing genomic analysis on many Wagyu bulls. Dr. Keith Belk, head of the CSU Animal Science Department, reported that they are developing in-breeding coefficients and working to expand the genetic variance in the breed.
Animal science faculty are also developing a voluntary certification program for Wagyu breeders. This will enable beef producers who use Wagyu genetics in farm-to-fork programs to verify that their beef products are truly produced by Wagyu genetics.
Charlie Bradbury, head of Specialty Beef Brands for JBS and driver behind the packing company’s Imperial American Wagyu Beef brand, told breeders that building their brand as Wagyu producers involves understanding your product, understanding where demand exists for the product and understanding the genetic and production targets that will get you where you want to be.
Bradbury’s crew buys around 200 Wagyu bulls a year and leases those to commercial cow-calf producers to produce F1 calves. JBS then buys those calves, feeds the animals and harvests them for their Wagyu beef program.
Wagyu is renowned worldwide for it exceptional marbling. For the American palate, however, the F1 Wagyu-Angus or Wagyu-Holstein cross produces the exceptional eating experience more suited to the American palate and U.S. beef production system, he said.
Testament to that statement, Bradbury said they can’t maintain any inventory of Wagyu beef. As soon as the product is put in a box, it’s shipped to retail or restaurants. Imperial gets multiple inquires daily asking for their beef, Bradbury said, resulting in a sales increase of $13.7 million year over year.
Dr. Sheila Patinkin with Vermont Wagyu, Rockingham, Vt., explained how her family and employees grew a small seedstock operation into a vibrant e-commerce beef company. Initially, part of their operation included beef sales, mostly direct to chefs in New York City.
In 2018-19, they began selling their beef through e-commerce, using email to contact friends and family. Then along came COVID and the restaurant sales disappeared. By developing a strong product branding program and ramping up their website and email blasts, Vermont Wagyu now has 3,000 beef consumers enjoying the high-quality beef that Wagyu produces.
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