Wagyu cattle farmer's mission to breed the 'best beef in the world'
- Credit: Sonya Duncan
A Norfolk farmer is selling Wagyu beef from one of the world's most prized and pampered cattle breeds - adding another new flavour to an increasingly diverse family business.
Third-generation farmer Sam Frost started his Norfolk Wagyu Beef venture at his family's Rookery Farm in Besthorpe near Attleborough.
The 450-acre farm, run in partnership between his father and uncle, already has extensive arable cropping, a 34-unit business park and a poultry operation growing about 38,000 free-range Christmas turkeys on contract for Gressingham Foods.
But now Mr Frost has created his own diversification niche, by producing a premium, sustainable retail product from the famed Japanese cattle breed which foodies claim produces the finest beef in the world.
After starting the business five years ago with four cows and a pedigree bull, he has gradually built up the slow-growing herd and is now selling meat online through the Norfolk Wagyu Beef website.
He said the ability to add value and set his own prices for a premium product was crucial to insulate the business from the volatility of the weather, commodity markets and subsidy reforms. And it adds one more facet to the wider family farm to help it ride out financial uncertainties.
"I've got a bit of weird obsession with the Wagyus", he said. "I love how they look and just walking the fields and checking the stock first thing in the mornings gives me so much pleasure. But I was also conscious that I need to keep diversifying, keep pushing the farm.
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"We've had two of the most horrible wet autumns and winters, so the crops look bang average and if that was our only source of income we would be getting a bit worried. But having other businesses like beef, turkeys and business units, which are not affected by weather so much, it allows you to level out those peaks and troughs.
"Farmers are historically price-takers and I wanted to make sure we were price-setters. By controlling the product and who I sell it to I can dictate what I am paid for that meat.
"It is the best beef in the world. The taste is unforgettable and there is a lot of history behind the cattle, and a lot of mystery behind them too. A lot of Wagyu breeders are very secretive about what they feed them."
In their Japanese homeland, there are tales of pampered Wagyu cattle being massaged and fed beer while listening to classical music. Mr Frost said he took a more conventional approach, working with a nutritionist to tweak the animals' rations to get the desired "marbling" - the thin white flecks of intramuscular fat which adds to the meat's flavour.
But while some Wagyu breeders are tight-lipped about their nutritional secrets, Mr Frost tells his customers exactly what his cows eat - 60.7pc grass, 18.4pc fodder beet, 11.2pc grains and 9.7pc straw - with 93pc of their food grown on the family's own land. It is an important part of the sustainability story of the brand.
"I am in full control of my animals from calving to the point where I pick up the meat from the butcher," he said. "The barley we grow gets put into their finishing ration, the fodder beet we grow goes into their winter feed with all the grass we grow. So I am in full control to make sure everything that goes into that animal is done to the most sustainable and ethical practices.
"I do think people should be eating less but higher-quality meat, which they know the source of and can trace the provenance. We're not changing arable fields to grassland, the fields that the cows graze are either too small to fit our modern machines in, so it is just not practical or economic to farm them, or the soil is too wet and cannot be drained."
The seasonal free-range turkeys also provide an opportunity for the cattle to make more efficient use of the farm's land asset.
"Those turkeys will come to us in August and we grow them through to Christmas - they range out on large grass fields and for the rest of the year that grass is sat there doing nothing," said Mr Frost.
"I am now able to raise cattle on it too, to double-use the land, and the manure from the turkeys fertilises it. It is all about efficiency and getting the most out of the land we have."