Many dairy farmers are breeding cattle, especially heifers, with beef semen for a variety of reasons. For Mark and Elaine Brisson of Daona Farm, the practice makes sense.
The Brissons’ farm in Shoreham, VT began as a dairy about 100 years ago. Today, Mark and his brother operate the dairy. Since the dairy farm is at capacity with a herd of 1,200 milking cows, there’s no need to raise every calf as a replacement.
At one time, the Brissons maintained a small cow/calf herd for freezer beef but sold that portion of the enterprise. “Then I got back into beef,” said Mark. “I decided to go with Wagyu. I used to breed my Holstein heifers to Jersey bulls for calving ease, and now some of the heifers are bred to Wagyu. We raise the Wagyu x Holstein calves for beef.”
With numerous options for beef on dairy matings, Mark was looking for a unique breed with good calving ease for heifers. Calves born to first-calf heifer American Wagyu weigh around 60 pounds at birth (compared to Holstein calves that weigh around 100 pounds), making Wagyu sires a good option for dairy heifers that aren’t yet full-grown.
“I also wanted a superior product to build a meat program,” said Mark. “For eating, the full-blood Wagyu is a different experience, but even the F1 Wagyu is a game-changer. People can easily tell the difference.”
Mark clarified the difference between a purebred and full-blood Wagyu: “A full-blood Wagyu can trace its ancestors all the way to Japan. A purebred Wagyu has been crossed with another breed and cannot trace its full ancestry to Japan.”
The Brissons obtained their first full-blood Wagyus from frozen embryos and implanted them in Holstein heifers.
A Holstein x Wagyu is an F1 cross, also known as an American Wagyu. “If it’s 50% Wagyu, it can be called American Wagyu,” said Mark. “One parent has to be a full-blood. If the F1 female is bred back to a full-blood Wagyu, eventually the offspring will be purebred, but it can never be full-blood.”
In addition to the Wagyu crosses, the Brissons have a full-blood Wagyu herd. “I have about 30 animals I use for genetics,” said Mark. “I raise the Wagyu bulls from those cows and have them collected for frozen semen, then I use the frozen [Wagyu] semen to breed the dairy cows.”
The F1 calves being finished for beef are raised with the farm’s dairy replacement heifers. In Japan, full-blood Wagyu cattle are raised the same way dairy calves are raised in the U.S. “When they reach about 12 to 15 months, I put them in small groups and feed them refusals from the milking herd,” said Mark. “We overfeed the milking cows and make sure they have fresh feed in front of them at all times, and by doing that, there’s feed left every day. That feed is cleaned up and fed to the steers to finish them.”
The Wagyu are raised alongside the Brissons’ dairy calves until they’re ready to enter the finishing pen. “We have two other farms where we can put groups of cattle to graze in summer,” said Mark. “They have access to pasture and we can also feed them.”
Wagyu is a later-maturing breed, which means cattle are on feed for longer. “We don’t process any of them before 24 months,” said Mark. “The more time they’re given to grow, the better they’ll reach their potential for marbling. The average steer in the U.S. is processed at about 18 months; I don’t like to send any of my F1s until they’re 24 months. They get better and better up to about 36 months, then they start to get too fat.” Ideally, finished feeders are sent for processing at around 29 months.
Since the dairy herd calves year-round, there’s a steady stream of new Wagyu cross calves. There are usually about 200 Wagyu and Wagyu cross calves on the farm ranging in age from newborn to finished animals.
While some customers have asked to purchase young Wagyu cross calves to finish themselves, Mark discourages them because it’s easier for him to finish them correctly and economically with all the necessary commodities already on the farm.
“The first few months of a calf’s life is when you’ve got most of the work and money into it,” said Mark. “After that it gets a little easier.”
Mark said it’s important that once the Wagyu start to grow, they gain continually. “If they start to go backwards [lose weight], it hurts the marbling,” he said. “You don’t want them to hit a time where they’re treading water.”
One unique aspect of Wagyu cattle is its characteristic fat. In Japan, Wagyu were originally bred as easy-natured animals with good dispositions to serve as draft animals to work in rice paddies and mines. When animals were working and needed energy, they pulled fat from muscle, and when there was down time and extra feed available, fat would go back to the muscle.
“Wagyu fat is different,” said Mark. “It has a much lower melting point. In Herefords and Angus, the fat is waxy, and fat from a Wagyu will melt on your fingers.”
Mark raises corn silage and other components for a dairy TMR, and purchases additional commodities such as corn meal, steamed flaked corn and canola meal. “We also add a mineral mix to the TMR,” said Mark. “Each group has a ration formulated by a nutritionist.”
The Brissons have been raising Wagyu crosses for about four years. They obtained a wholesale and retail license to sell beef and built an office and a storefront onto a new shop they were building.
Mark said Wagyu ground beef is quite different from other ground beef, with superior texture and flavor. Some customers purchase only ground beef, but as summer approaches, grilling cuts for will be popular. Daona Farm sells halves, quarters, cuts and bundles as well as wholes to meat shops and chefs. They also ship beef to customers in several states.
The Brissons explain that Wagyu fat is healthy and high in unsaturated omega-3 and omega-6 fats. “That’s what makes a steak tender, juicy and flavorful,” said Elaine. “The meat has a finer grained texture, and when raised and finished right, it’s a superior product.”
They continue to sell out of steaks at the store. “Business has really grown year over year,” she said. “We get new customers all the time, through the website and word of mouth. Once people try it, they’re hooked on it.”
Visit Daona Farm American Wagyu Beef at daonawagyu.com.
by Sally Colby