Wagyu Breed Overview
Origin of the Wagyu Breed
Beef was consumed sparingly in Japan due to religious prohibitions. Cattle had been introduced to Japan from the Asian mainland, via the Korean peninsula, to provide power for the cultivation of rice. With the Meiji Restoration in 1868, the government encouraged importation of foreign breeds to improve the domestic animals. In 1910, it was decided that crossbreeding had not been beneficial and importation was stopped.
Japan's rugged terrain impeded travel and cattle of some regions became distinctly different from those of other regions. The most famous were the Kobe beef and that name was applied to all beef produced in the prefecture of Kobe.
Soldiers and other travellers returned to Japan with a newly-acquired taste for meat. Meat was a luxury that was consumed on expense accounts and only in small portions. It was expensive, but it had to be of high quality.
History of Wagyu in North America
Two Black Wagyu and two Red Wagyu bulls were imported from Japan to the USA in March, 1976. At about the same time, semen from a fifth bull, Itotani was brought to Canada by Lakeside Industries at Brooks.
The four American Wagyu bulls were bred up on farms in Texas. By 1991, the highest percentage Wagyu bull in the USA was 63/64. By 1991, it was estimated there were less than 300 Wagyu crossbred females of breeding age that were 3/4 Wagyu or higher. It was about this time that Itotani semen was found and the narrow genetic base was significantly widened.
By 1988, Japan Began to contract and feed North American beef cattle for importation to Japan. British breeds were favored over the exotic breeds and the cattle were fed for long periods of time to increase marbling. For the most part, the Japanese claimed to be disappointed because the imported cattle did not grade as well as the top grading Japanese Wagyu cattle. The Japanese breeders declared the Wagyu breed to be a national treasure and denied requests to allow exportation.
In 1993, trade restrictions were relaxed and fullbloods were allowed to be exported. There is little doubt that the Wagyu of 1993 have been significantly improved over the animal that arrived in 1976. Because of the high premiums paid for the Kobe beef, selection pressure for quality factors was intense. Wagyu breeders in the world outside of Japan welcome the opportunity to widen the genetic base of the Wagyu breed with new fullbloods from Japan.