Raising Wagyu cows for world's most expensive steak
Kenichi Breden bounds off his bicycle at the fields where he keeps his cows. In his late 20s, by day he is a school teacher, but on evenings and weekends he is a gentleman farmer and Wagyu enthusiast.
The Breden family had been farming for some years before becoming one of the first to diversify into breeding and crossbreeding Japanese cattle in Luxembourg to produce their own version of the world’s most expensive meat, Wagyu.
The word Wagyu literally translates to Japanese cow and it was a while back in his ancestral home of Japan that Breden discovered the methods and strict standards needed to produce it.
Exporting Wagyu cattle’s semen and embryos from Japan to the United States and Australia was acceptable in the 1980s but Japan banned the practice in the late 1990s and the cattle became a rarity and Japan began exporting their own branded beef abroad.
‘‘Most of the Wagyu cattle we see today in Europe are descended from embryos brought into Europe from the United States and Australia’’, says Breden. ‘‘Wagyu cattle are actually four breeds of domestic cow - not one.''
It is the Japanese Black, found on Breden’s farm, that is predominant throughout Europe.
Cows bred in Europe are smaller, but they possess other qualities - qualities that have been enhanced by cross-breeding with European counterparts, Breden says.
Popular Limousin cattle regularly seen in the fields of Luxembourg are interbred with their Japanese cousins to produce, what some would argue is, a superior cow. This 'super' cow combines the best qualities of both breeds - a lean Limousin style meat with all the flavour and marbling of a superior Kobe steak. Wagyu, with a European twist.
‘‘To be authentic Kobe beef, the meat needs to have come from the region [of Kobe in Japan] - like Champagne.'' says Breden.
There is no such thing as discounted Kobe. ''If it is not €50 to €80 or more for a steak at your butchers, then it is most probably not Kobe beef'', he says.
The time it takes to breed the cattle is what makes it so expensive. Following strict Japanese guidelines laid out for rearing authentic Wagyu is a full-time job.
On a regular beef farm, young bulls are ready for the meat market at approximately 16 months of age but a Japanese cow is between 30 to 34 months old before seeing the slaughterhouse, Breden says.
The family concentrates on raising steers (castrated bulls) which grow slowly. The result is a tender, more flavoursome meat. The recent heatwave has left fresh grass in short supply and Breden feeds his cows locally sourced, GMO free pellets made according to an authentic Japanese Wagyu recipe, topped up with regionally harvested hay.
The cost of raising Wagyu is much lower in Europe than it is in Japan, and this should be reflected in the price, Breden says.
Unlike Europe, grazing land and space is at a premium on the islands of Japan and certain foods such as corn have to be imported for the cows.
Contrary to marketing hype, massaging Wagyu cattle, playing calming music to them and feeding them beer is not common, neither in Luxembourg nor in Japan, Breden says.