Grill chefs like me pay particular attention to how animals are reared as it affects the meat quality. The rearing process has to be meticulous to make sure the luxurious meats are tender as they are famed to be.
There are a lot of fanciful tales about raising wagyu cows that try to explain why wagyu beef is so expensive. Well, if you want to know how they are really raised, read on:
"Wagyu" directly translated into English simply means "Japanese cow." However, not any Japanese cow can become wagyu beef.
There are four main cattle breeds native to Japan that produce wagyu beef. Here is the list:
All wagyu cows are medium-sized and horned. None are given growth hormones. The wagyu breeds are easy to distinguish thanks to the dark color of the ends of their horns.
Pure wagyu made entirely from only native Japanese breeds do exist. Wagyu steak with the A5 grading comes from full-blooded Japanese cows that some consider to be the highest quality.
Modern wagyu genetics is heavily influenced by mixed breeding. Wagyu cattle have been crossbred with cows from abroad - like Devon, Ayrshire, Korean, Shorthorn, Brown Swiss, and Simmental - going as far back as the Meiji restoration era in the 1800s.
Wagyu beef raised in America, UK, or Australia are most likely a result of cross-breeding.
This is not entirely a bad thing. All certified wagyu have lots of healthy fatty acids resulting in the meat's juicy taste famed world over.
Unlike regular cows (and people), the wagyu breeds have the unique ability to store fat within their muscles even after being fed three meals a day. This is why you see evenly marbled fat deposits on prime wagyu cuts, unlike on usual steak.
Wagyu cattle often get the coveted A5 grading for steaks because of these evenly marbled fat deposits. This grading scale indicates how much intramuscular fat the beef has. The higher the IMF, the better the quality of the meat.
It's this marbling texture that gives wagyu beef taste that is highly sought-after by connoisseurs.
It takes up to three years for the cows to mature before being sent to auction. The cows remain in feeding farms until they reach at least 1500 lbs (about 680kg) of weight, and gain muscle and a body mass index of 50% fat.
Farmers go to extra lengths to provide balanced feeding to cows so they reach these developmental milestones.
Specialty breeders raise wagyu calves until they are seven to ten months old. During this time, the calves are issued a birth certificate indicating their bloodline.
Then, in Japan the certified cows are auctioned off to fattening farmers. Each cow is carefully monitored by a wagyu breeder to make sure they reach the developmental targets.
Wagyu cows are raised on open pasture where the animals are allowed to roam free. A cow isn't allowed to share pens with more than five others. This is in stark contrast to cattle raised in factory farms, where a herd of animals may share a pen.
Japanese farmers aim to keep wagyu cows in a stress-free environment. It's believed that excess stress can result in unpalatable tough meat. Therefore, reputable wagyu farmers go that extra length to allow their cattle to graze.
Free roaming isn't the only perk. I remember one of the commis chefs I worked with back in the day told me how Japanese farmers played classical music to their cows, presumably to increase blood circulation.
While most farmers don't actually do this, it's true that traditional rearing methods aim to increase blood circulation among the animals.
In traditionally run feeding farms, a wagyu cow is routinely massaged with a stiff brush. Not only does it keep the animals stress-free, the stiff brush massages the animal's muscles, increasing blood circulation to stiff joints.
The four main cattle breeds typically undergo time-consuming pampering like this. It's one of the reasons why wagyu beef is so expensive.
A good diet as well as rigorous activity plays a major role in why this prized beef tastes so good.
Farmers feed the cows high-energy ingredients so that the animals reach their weight and fat percentage milestones.
The high energy ingredients include wheat and grains. The cows are fed three meals per day. With this diet, they can gain as much as 2 pounds (about 900g) per day.
In the summer months, they may graze freely, getting plenty of vitamins.
The cattle are raised on imported, higher quality grain rather than local produce. This is a major reason why wagyu beef is so expensive.
It's important to note that not all farms have routinely massaged and pampered cows. There are reports of some farms mistreating animals by force-feeding them unnatural foods like beer.
That's why you should always look at recognition from professional bodies, such as the American Jersey cattle association, that certifies you are buying real Japanese wagyu beef or high-quality cross breeds.
Yes, they can be and there already a few farmers doing this.
In the US, you may see luxurious meats known as American wagyu. This meat is made by cross-breeding a purebred cow from Japan with an Angus cow.
The result is a cut high in fat similar to a tough meat like Angus. I've tried both and the main difference is that the American version doesn't melt in your mouth the same way.
Still, the US wagyu is not a tough meat at all. It is higher in protein so you can eat more.
That's how one of the priciest steaks in the world is reared before it appears in restaurants.