Farmer owned co-operatives LIC and First Light Wagyu have come together in a programme to meet the global appetite for high quality, grass-fed New Zealand Wagyu beef.
With a focus on farm performance and excellent eating quality beef, LIC’s Wagyu programme uses artificial breeding technology to cross dairy cows with Wagyu sires, creating greater value for dairy farmers and a reliable source of export-quality Wagyu stock for First Light.
First Light CEO Gerard Hickey says that the programme is helping to meet global demand for their product, which is being fueled by the growing grass-fed movement.
According to Gerard Hickey the dairy-Wagyu cross creates a desirable product for export, featuring more of the highly valued marbling for which Wagyu beef is renowned. The product is fifty percent Wagyu, allowing it to be marketed as Wagyu beef.
“Our experience has shown that dairy breeds, including the Kiwicross cow, produces a high quality marbled beef when mated with First Light Wagyu sires,” says Hickey.
“In target markets, the ‘grass-fed’ consumer preference is for premium marbled beef product that is 100 percent grass-fed, GMO and antibiotic free, and there is nothing better than Wagyu to achieve this. Although consumer profiles and preferences differ across markets, grass-fed Wagyu is meeting a growing trend.”
The grass-fed movement, which started in California, has now spread to other markets for First Light including the East Coast of the United States, Switzerland, the UK and Europe, and Dubai. Prices in these target markets are at the top end of beef prices globally.
“Consumers are willing to pay more for a verified product with the superior eating characteristics provided by First Light Wagyu, just as they are willing to pay more for organic and grain-fed products,” says Hickey.
An increasing focus on provenance and traceability for food items could lead to higher demand from consumers for a verified supply chain. In addition to artificial breeding services, LIC is the foremost company in New Zealand providing state-of-the-art gene technology that verifies the parentage of calves for farmers.
LIC General Manager Biological Systems Richard Spelman says it’s technology like this that will allow ethically driven companies like First Light to provide consumers with the transparency they crave, from pasture to plate.
“Our technology gives farmers and companies like First Light confidence that the product they are marketing and selling is what they say it is,” says Spelman.
As a farmer-owned co-operative, LIC’s focus with the programme is to generate alternative revenue streams for its farmers, and provide an alternative to bobby calves.
“This programme creates a win-win situation where non-replacement calves become a value product for farmers, generating income diversification from calf sales in early spring,” says Spelman.
LIC has more than 10,000-plus dairy farmer customers who use the co-operative’s services to improve farm productivity through genetically superior livestock. With the Wagyu programme, farmers can simply extend their existing artificial breeding period to include First Light Wagyu.
Waikato farmer Sandra Kraakman, who supplied LIC / First Light with 63 calves this autumn, says the programme has given her peace of mind.
“We started the programme as an alternative to bobby calves. They take heifers and bulls – every calf goes, and that’s brilliant.
“We were getting paid a pittance for bobby calves. Our labour and milk goes into these animals and in the end, we make no money. The Wagyu cross is a totally different scenario. It’s a fairer representation of the work that goes into rearing the calf,” says Kraakman.
Through First Light, the 46 farmer-shareholders who raise the Wagyu dairy cross from three- month-old weaners to finish at two to three years of age have guaranteed buyers in markets around the world.