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Wagyu Cattle in Japan

    Cattle were introduced into Japan from the Asian mainland via the Korean peninsula in the 2nd century to provide power for the cultivation of rice. Because of difficult travel in the rugged terrain of the region where they were first introduced, further migration of cattle was slow and restricted. Cattle tended to be isolated in small areas and each area had essentially a closed population.
    The cow herd in Japan was officially closed for over 200 years by mandate of the shogun that lasted from 1635-1854. With the Meiji Restoration in 1868, the Japanese government encouraged the importation of other breeds of cattle for crossbreeding. At that time, Brown Swiss, Shorthorn, Devon, Simmental, Aryshire, Korean, Holstein and Angus cattle were introduced into the nation's cow herd. Different breeds were preferred in the various regions where cattle were bred and regional variation in the cattle became greater. In 1910, it was officially decided that crossbreeding had not been beneficial and the national cow herd was closed to crossbreeding once again.
    Because of the geographical impediments to travel and differences of opinion in cattle selection and breeding, the cattle of a region became distinctly different from cattle of other regions. While Wagyu refers to all Japanese beef cattle ("Wa" means Japanese or Japanese-style and "gyu" means cattle), cattle were referred to by the name of the region of origin. Hence, "Kobe gyu" or "Kobe beef" means beef cattle from the Kobe area and does not directly refer to the quality or marbling of the beef. All cattle from Kobe were called Kobe beef and not just the best or those with a certain amount of marbling. Although Wagyu technically refers to all Japanese beef cattle, the predominance of Japanese Black in Japan makes it unnecessary to indicate the color when describing the cattle.
    The other major breed of Wagyu, Japanese Brown (Red Wagyu), was primarily bred and developed on the islands of Kyushu and Kochi. There are two distinct strains of Japanese Brown--Kochi and Kumamoto. Kochi cattle were strongly influenced by Korean
breeding while Kumamoto cattle have a considerable amount of Simmental influence. Because of these differences, Kochi cattle are smaller than those of Kumamoto, more fine-boned and lack the natural thickness of Kumamoto cattle. Kochi cattle also have black noses and may also have black hair on their feet and legs.
    Japanese Black and Japanese Brown are the predominant breeds of beef cattle in Japan, but Japanese Poll, Japanese Shorthorn, Angus and Charolais are also bred. Many of the newly introduced breeds are located on the northern-most island, Hokkaido. Present breed composition of the Japanese cow herd is as follows:
    Japanese Black 750,000
    Japanese Brown 85,000
    Holstein    2,000,000+

Beer and Massage: Fact or Fiction

    It is true that cattle are occasionally fed beer in Japan. Most cattle in Japan are essentially on feed all of their lives because grazing land is not available. There is some grass on the islands of Hokkaido and Kyushu but many cattle are raised in total confinement from birth to slaughter. Cattle are often fed a finishing diet for at least 16 months and are 30-34 months of age in the case of steers and up to 46 months old for heifers (heifers may have calved once prior to finishing) prior to slaughter. Because cattle are fed so long, and particularly in summer months when the interaction of fat cover, temperature and humidity depresses feed intake, many cattle go off feed. When this happens, beer is fed to the cattle to stimulate appetite. Japanese cattle feeders do not ascribe any magical powers to feeding beer nor do they associate the practice with an increase in carcass quality; they merely feed beer as part of an overall management program designed to keep the cattle on feed.
    It is also true that cattle are sometimes massaged in Japan. Once again, this practice does not affect the deposition of marbling. It is a common-sense practice required occasionally for cattle that are tied in one place for months and have no opportunity to exercise. The massaging is done to make the animal more comfortable and relieve stress due to stiffness that can result from inactivity. Cattle often become so lethargic that they will not get up and eat without coaxing. The massaging prolongs the length of time that cattle can be fed before they go to slaughter and thereby increases fat deposition.
    Brushing cattle with beer or sake is another practice which creates great interest. It, too, is rare and founded in practicality. Japanese beef cattle experts believe that hair coat and softness of skin are related to carcass quality in Wagyu cattle. Consequently, judges at livestock shows in Japan place considerable emphasis on haircoat in the ranking of fed cattle. Just as in the U.S., the winners of cattle shows in Japan receive substantial premiums upon the sale of the animals. Brushing the haircoat with sake improves the appearance and softness of the animal's haircoat and is therefore of economic importance in show cattle. In commercial cattle feeding operations, however, cattle are usually sold on the rail (after removing the hide and carcass quality is known). Consequently, haircoat is of no economic value and brushing with sake is not routinely practiced.
    In addition to the practical aspects of feeding beer, massaging and brushing with liquors, these things are also done on occasion for the sake of the image associated with the gourmet meats that result from the production of Wagyu cattle. Ambiance and mystic are nearly as important in the eating experience as the flavor, juiciness and tenderness of the beef.

Introduction of Wagyu into the U.S.

    Two Japanese Black and two Japanese Brown bulls were imported from Japan to the U.S. in March of 1976. At that time, nobody in the U.S. or Japan anticipated market liberalization and permission was granted by the Japanese government for the bulls to be exported. The four bulls were imported by a group led by Morris Whitney of Texas. The bulls were transported to Colorado State University where semen was collected. Later, the bulls were purchased by a veterinarian and they were moved to Texas. The bulls were mated to Angus and other breeds of cows to breed up toward purebred Wagyu. After a short time, the bulls and most of the semen were purchased by Wagyu Breeders, Inc. and were located near Georgetown, Texas. Cattle and semen were then sold to various breeders around the U.S. Because there were only four bulls available and only two of each breed, the black and red cattle were both used in grading up the crossbreeds to avoid problems associated with inbreeding. Consequently, the American Wagyu is really a hybrid of Japanese Black and Japanese Brown. As of 1991, the highest percentage American Wagyu animal in the U.S. is 63/64.
    At the present time, the author estimates there are less than 300 breeding age Wagyu crossbred females in the U.S. that are 3/4 Wagyu or higher. However, by the end of 1991, at least 1,500-2,000 head of Wagyu-influenced cattle will be born in the U.S.--principally half-bloods. It is likely that as many of the 7,000 head of Wagyu crossbreds will be born in 1992. If carcass quality in these half-bloods is sufficient to compete favorably with dairy beef in Japan, it is conceivable that the number of American Wagyu cattle should continue to grow at a rapid pace for the next several years.



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Briggs Ranch Genetics
10456 N I-45
Rice, Texas   75155
Phone (214) 384-6622  
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