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Wagyu calves pricey, but worth it

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Wagyu cattle are treated like first-class citizens with the best of everything on Rockburn farm and they are appropriately rewarding their farmers Evan and Clare Chapman for their preferential treatment. Annette Scott reports.
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Gerard Hickey | September 02, 2020 from GlobalHQ on Vimeo.

Evan and Clare Chapman of Rockburn Farming in South Canterbury have produced one of the biggest Wagyu steers ever seen in New Zealand.

The Chapmans turned to Wagyu cattle just three years ago and have routinely produced 800 kg-plus cattle, but the massive 946kg steer processed this month has put the farm in the First Light record book.

In October last year, the Chapmans marked a century of farming on the rolling downs of Rockburn, near Geraldine.

It was also the year Rockburn Farming was crowned First Light Wagyu Finisher of the Year, a fitting way to celebrate Evan and Clare taking full ownership of the 540-hectare property after farming in partnership with Evan’s parents, Angus and Liz, since 2003.

But Angus is not quite ready to hang up his hat on day-to-day farming.

“Dad is still up here every day, he’s a wealth of knowledge and this year he’s doing his 54th consecutive year of lambing,” Evan said.

Clare is in charge of the books and general farm administration.

And that allows the extra time for Chapmans to focus on their Wagyu cattle, a new venture under the fourth-generation farmers.

Rockburn now runs 2800 composite Longdown breeding ewes, finishes 100 bulls and takes 100 First Light Wagyu calves through to finishing.

“We had been breeding cows here for a long time, but it was too hard to take them through the dry summers with calves at foot so we went to trading steers and heifers, but we were at the mercy of the schedule and the store price,” Evan explained.

“We didn’t know what the purchase price was going to be and we didn’t know what the sale price was going to be.”

He is thankful he stumbled across First Light and Wagyu when he did. 

“We pay a premium price for the Wagyu calves, which makes you flinch a bit, but it’s worth it at the other end when the price you get for them at 24-months is so much higher again,” he said.

The Wagyus, a term referring to all Japanese beef cattle, are quiet, easy to handle and most importantly, provide surety of price.

“Wagyu cattle are great to work with,” he said.

“They are slower growing but price-wise you can’t match it and the certainty around the 12-month contract provides real confidence in what we are doing.

“We treat them (Wagyu cattle) like first-class citizens, they get the best of everything, irrigated pasture in the summer, fodder beet and clover balage in the winter.

“At night I was fencing off the ring feeders so they had to eat more fodder beet if they were hungry.

“You have to be prepared to give them preferential treatment but the benefit of this is a contract with a premium price.”

That contract is with First Light, the NZ farming co-operative the Chapmans belong to as suppliers.

Evan said the Wagyu animals are quiet and good to handle.

“They’re placid, a lot easier than the bulls to handle and easy to work in the paddock and in the yards,” he said.

With three daughters, Olivia 15, Ella 13, and Milly 11, that is a bonus.

“Last year, the kids were feeding them fodder beet through the fence and there are a few friendly ones you can give a good scratch on the head,” he recalled.

He says the inclusive relationship with First Light’s hub meetings keeps farmers well informed of what’s going on in the company and any new initiatives coming through. 

“They’re always doing more research to lift the marble score and sharing ideas from other farmers in the supply group to improve what we’re doing,” he said.

Rockburn Farming picked up the prize for First Light Wagyu Finisher of the Year in 2019.

This season First Light has processed the biggest animal the business has seen in recent memory, at a whopping 946kg, and it was produced on Rockburn.

Now First Light is auctioning for charity one of the whole, marble score seven plus ribeyes the Chapmans have produced with all proceeds going to KidsCan.

The ribeye comes from a sibling to the Wagyu steer that delivered First Light’s World Steak Award gold medal win in 2019.

First Light managing director Gerard Hickey said the Chapmans are clearly doing something right.

“This isn’t a one-off. In the past month, Rockburn has sent us some of the highest yielding animals we can remember,” he said.

“This is the Wagyu beef dreams are made of, beautiful meat, incredible intramuscular marbling, and a generous pay-day for the Chapmans, who have made it happen for us.” 

First Light’s farming model offers a guaranteed per-kilogram contract on each animal so that farmers can forecast payments 12 months in advance and budget accordingly.

On top of the base price, farmers attract premiums for marbled meat, the higher the marble score, the better the financial return. 

“What Rockburn Farming has achieved this season is nothing short of extraordinary,” Hickey said.

“The meat they’ve produced is outstanding, the sort of grass-fed meat that is extremely highly prized in our discerning offshore markets.”

One Rockburn ribeye has been held back from its scheduled shipment, sliced into steaks and will be auctioned for KidsCan, a charity supporting NZ children.

Hickey estimates the beef, weighing approximately 6.8kg, would have sold to a United States restaurant for a minimum $500.

“We call these sorts of steaks unicorns because to get anything above a marble score seven is rare, and very much sought-after,” he said.

“We’re keen to see this remarkable meat go to a Wagyu enthusiast here in NZ, and to support a charity doing important work in our schools and early childhood education sector at the same time.”

The auction is being hosted online until Friday, September 4. Bids can be placed here.

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