The wagyu breed
Wagyu – literally “Japanese cow” – are the product of a specific set of conditions in Japan - the geography and climate, industry and religious and cultural practices.
Cattle were introduced to Japan around the same time as rice cultivation and have almost 2000 years of history as draught animals, working the fields, mines and mountains of Japan. They have long been selected for their ability to work, and by a wonderful coincidence the ability to store large amounts of intramuscular fat as a source of muscle fuel also creates amazing beef.
Historically Japan had severe restrictions on the eating of meat, however during the Meiji restoration in the late 19th century foreign influence and customs began appearing in Japan, and meat eating became more commonplace. As agriculture slowly became more mechanised during the 20th century the focus of cattle breeding changed from working animals to beef production.
The Texas Wagyu Association has a link to an article here that provides a lot more information on the historical Japanese food culture and the influence of the Meiji restoration.
There was a short period of crossbreeding between the native cattle and imported breeds in the late 19th/early 20th century and the four wagyu breeds had evolved by the 1950s – the Japanese Black, Japanese Brown (known as Red wagyu in the west), Japanese Poll and the Japanese Shorthorn.
Today over 90% of cattle in Japan are of the Japanese Black or Kuroge washu. This is the breed we work with and generally what people are talking about when they say ‘wagyu’. Within the breed distinct variations between geographic prefectures and each provides a different set of strengths and weaknesses (e.g. Tajima cattle from Hyogo prefecture are known for the best meat quality but are smaller with poorer maternal traits).
The Australian Wagyu Forum has some excellent articles on the traditional Japanese prefectures here.
The first live exports of wagyu were in 1976 when two black bulls (Mazda from Tottori prefecture and Mt Fuji from Hyogo prefecture) and two red bulls (Judo and Rueshaw from Kumamoto prefecture) were sent to the United States. A breeding up program was begun whereby the bulls were crossed over other breeds (no wagyu cows were available) until at the 4th cross the progeny were 94% wagyu or ‘purebred’.
There was a short window between 1993 and 1998 where the majority of the black and red wagyu genetics were exported. There will almost certainly never be any more exported due to biosecurity issues and the fact that wagyu are considered by the Japanese to be a living cultural treasure. Only a little over 200 animals have been exported; in the west we only have a small fraction of the genetics that are available in Japan and protecting those genetics is one of the great challenges to the wagyu breeding.
Today wagyu and wagyu influenced cattle can be categorised as crossbred, purebred (4th cross or 94% wagyu, or fullblood (100% japanese wagyu genetics). In New Zealand commercial F1 (first cross or 50% wagyu - particularly out of dairy cows) are common, with a much smaller number of purebred and fullblood animals. Australia has the largest fullblood herd outside of Japan and is the source of most of the genetics that have come into New Zealand.