Pioneering wagyu

HIS broad craggy face kindly fixes with a wry smile when asked how cattle farmers first responded to his promotion of wagyu cattle in the early 90's.

"Do you remember ostrich farms? Well, we were the black ostriches. What the hell are these things?,” Simon Coates chuckles.

A pioneering advocate and breeder of wagyu cattle in Australia, Dr Simon Coates knew he was onto something when he heard about the highly-prized Japanese breed with outstanding qualities around marbling and flavour, a stocky, smaller black breed that had been cultivated over thousands of years working in Japanese fields to develop a unique intramuscular oily fat of particular delicacy and flavour.

High grades of wagyu can retail in Japan for $1000/kg, where it is traditionally prepared in small, delicately sliced portions in the traditional Japanese style.

Dr Coates' pivotal "aha” moment came in 1991, coinciding with a period where the Australian beef industry was in crisis.

"For example, premium angus steers were making 80c a kilo, liveweight. People were really worried about it, they weren't making any money. It was pathetic. And people were seriously looking around for what they were going to do,” Dr Coates said.

"And so, we weren't making any money either. We had a hereford operation near Roma. Then I saw that first little tiny wagyu operation in 1991.”

A period of research followed.

"I had done a lot of biochemistry at university, and the biochemistry of these animals was completely different to the normal cattle. I just couldn't believe it, so I went to Washington State University where they did a lot of research on some of these animals that had come across to the US, and saw the researcher, who had produced a book on what the wagyu-angus steers were like, biochemically.

"I knew immediately after I had done all the reading that this was an amazing thing and that these wagyu cattle, with one cross over any breed could improve the carcass quality dramatically.

"We knew about Kobe beef (the general term for it) and businessmen travelling to Japan knew about it as a premium product. All Australian cattlemen at the time were into producing lean beef, but lean beef is not a predictable eating-quality beef, and a lot of people don't like it. So we were ready make big financial commitments to wagyu,” he said.

But one man alone cannot radicalise a market and establish a solid market share for a high-value niche product, so as his own herd developed, Dr Coates set about establishing the Sumo cattle name, developing a network of beef producers, presenting a series of field days right across eastern Australia, from Tasmania up to Hughenden, advertised through Elders local branches.

"I'd present a one-hour talk with a slideshow on the beef industry, where it's been, where it was going. And they were really keen to hear what I had to say, because they weren't making any money. We'd get a big roll-up, and would not even mention wagyu until the last five minutes, and what effect that might have on the beef industry. It was very cunning, because I didn't want to get too much thrown at me, like apple cores.

At the end of my presentation - it always happened - you'd be four or five people that would put their hand up: 'What would you know?'”

At that point, the group would be invited outside where four barbecues were fired up to grill 300 steaks to go on fresh buns.

"All the people that tried to put me down in the presentation, I'd just watch their faces when they took that first bite, and they were just absolutely stoned. They couldn't believe it.”

"And so, you'd get 10 to 15 that would come up and want to find out more, or get involved. For every region we visited we had that little pocket of people. You can't start a revolution by just waving a flag, you've got to do it in small bursts and let it roll, and you've got to involve people.

"Just telling people about wagyu wasn't going to do it, allowing them to taste it, experience it, made all the difference.”

Dr Coates said that for every field day, they would prepare two or three steers, selecting only the sweetest cuts, and giving the remainder to charity. At one field day a month for five or six years, he estimates they probably invested around $100,000 in free samples.

People buying bulls or embryos were also encouraged to join the Australian Wagyu Association, of which Dr Coates was the second president, seeing the organisation grow in those years from 15 members to around 300 during his years as president.

One significant moment came when some Collins Street stockbrokers attended one of the field days, then later approached Dr Coates to come to Melbourne for a meeting.

"I asked our general manager how we were going to do this, and he said, 'Well, for a start we are going to wear a suit, and we are going to stay at the best hotel, the Grand Hyatt in Collins Street, because you can bet they are going to ask us where we stayed last night',” he said.

"You need to match your situation, and sure enough, that was the first thing they asked us. And do you know what? they ordered $1million worth of embryos from us.”

In 1995, Sumo also began live export into Japan of angus-wagyu stock contributing 100 to an annual trade of 20,000. Within 10 years, they had completely replaced the traditional angus stock with angus-wagyu cross.

Sumo Cattle runs 1300 head of cattle on its Grafton aggregation, and also offers Australia's largest embryo transfer operation, producing around 1500 calves annually. Consequently, a significant proportion of the national herd has its roots in Sumo's quality full-blood wagyu stock.

The genetics emerged from Japan's traditional Mishima cattle, now a critically endangered species, selected for draft work because of their strong endurance characteristics and smaller stature that made them suited to navigating narrow terraces. With the emergence of the Japanese steel industry in the late 1800's, Mishima were found to be too small to pull the excessively heavy steel carts, and so larger European breeds were introduced to cross with the Mishima, resulting in the stronger wagyu breeds known today.

Significantly, no further genetics can leave Japan following an outbreak of mad cow disease in 2001 that led to a ban on stock exports from the Asian nation.

Dr Coates felt the F1 angus-wagyu cross would continue to be the mainstay of the domestic market as a more affordable option towards Australia's culinary preference for the traditional steak.

Overall wagyu production in Australia is currently 3 per cent of total production, but represents approximately 10 per cent of export market value due to the very high value of wagyu beef in international markets.

Aside from Japan, markets are expanding in South Africa, New Zealand China, South-East Asia and, more recently, Europe.

"It's about to explode around the world, and Australia has the bulk of genetics outside of Japan.”

And the prospect of developing the massive European market has Dr Coates buying a plane ticket and heading off to fire up the grill once again and stimulate the European taste for Australian-bred wagyu.

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