A Norfolk farmer is making a success of breeding and selling high-quality Wagyu beef direct to consumers after starting his business just four years ago.
Sam Frost, who farms at Besthorpe, near Attleborough, started Norfolk Wagyu Beef after tasting it in a restaurant while on holiday in Australia. The taste was fantastic, he says – and so was the story behind it.
“I’ve always loved producing something and selling it direct to the consumer,” explains Mr Frost. “We’ve always had turkeys. When I was younger dad and I would butcher them and put a sign at the end of the road for people to collect them for Christmas day. “I always liked that one-to-one process – to farm something and then literally give the product straight to the person buying it. But Christmas is only one day and I wanted something that was all-year-round.”
Mr Frost says he wanted to start a high-value niche enterprise that would bring additional revenue into the business. Many people do turkeys, he says, But only about 50 farmers in the UK rear Wagyu beef. Four cows with followers and a pedigree Australian-registered Wagyu bull were purchased in 2017. “It’s a long process,” says Mr Frost. “I’m taking them to about 32-months-old – they are big boys when they are done.”
Wagyu are a Japanese beef cattle breed descended from native Asian cattle. Once used as draft animals in agriculture, they weer selected for their physical endurance – which means more intramuscular fat cells.
The marbling this creates provides a readily available energy source – increasing their endurance. But it also means their meat is exceptionally tender and flavoursome, making it highly prized by top chefs across the world.
Although native to Japan, the Australian breed society is among the biggest and most respected globally. “The meat from the offspring sired by our bull is very good – he does his job and his progeny marble really nicely.
“The quality of the beef is the driving force behind what we do,” he adds. “We have some pure Wagyu cattle in our herd and some crossbred animals. Our aim is to produce high welfare and sustainable wagyu beef.”
Mr Frost has overcome numerous hurdles to reach where he is today – but the meat is good and it is selling well. The technical side of livestock breeding is rewarding, he says. So too is marketing Wagyu meat to consumers.
“The Wagyu are a great breed – and the meat they produce is exceptional. Then there is the the breeding itself – and we have full control over it, which makes it fascinating.
“The marbling makes the meat really special – the intramuscular fat melts when you cook it. It’s almost like butter when you eat it – a really rich but tender steak that has a good beef flavour – it’s the marbling that makes it unique.”
Low annual rainfall means Norfolk isn’t renowned for its grass-based livestock systems. But Mr Frost still manages to keep his cattle outside for at least six months of the year – and seven months if the weather allows. Getting enough grass has been a struggle – the farm is mainly arable – but local farmers and landowners have helped out by providing grazing. “People have been really supportive and generous,” says Mr Frost.
When they come inside, young stock are fed on fodder beet. “We already grew sugar beet on the farm, so it was really easy for us add fodder beet into the rotation. It’s a good-value feed and it contains lots of energy, so they do really well on it.”
At first, Mr Frost says he thought he would rotationally graze the cattle to maximise the grass usage. But he soon realised that Wagyu won’t fatten on grass alone.
“A well-known breeder told me you should never let a Wagyu have a bad day in its life – you’ve always got to keep them fed nicely. They won’t marble so well off a grass-only diet so we make sure we supplement it with barley and beet pulp.”
Building up the herd is an expensive business – with animals bought in when money allows and when they become available. There are currently about 10 cows and 40 animals altogether.
“We will only finish three animals this year and five next year,” says Mr Frost. “The year after, we expect to be be doing one a month – which means one animal slaughtered each month.
“The goal is get to finishing one animal every week – which will represent a considerable achievement because historically we’re not a livestock farm with lots of buildings lying around doing nothing.”
Wagru meat products are currently sold through the farm’s dedicated online shop. Other outlets are set to include specialist retailers, eateries and restaurants – now Covid lockdown rules are easing.
Sales and marketing
“Restaurants are interested but we only started selling beef last March and then the pandemic came. We’ve since built up a good customer base by concentrating on private sales.”
Customers are discerning and demand quality, says Mr Frost. They willing to pay £10 for 500g of Wagyu mince. It’s two or three times the price of regular beef – a premium price for a premium product, he adds.
“I didn’t want to be a farmer who grows a crop or rears an animal and then have no say in the price I am given. I wanted to be able to say: ‘This is how much it is’. The only way to do that is by having my own shop.”
Setting up the online shop was among his biggest challenges. But so too was learning about stockmanship. “Traditionally, we’re turkey producers so it’s been a steep learning curve but I feel like I’m getting there.”
Thankfully, Wagyus are know being placid animals – although easily stressed – and easy calvers. “They are easy to manage and their calm temperament is a big bonus.”
Plans include improving the marbling by introducing more pure-bred animals. “I’m really enjoying this and I want to keep it going – and see where it can go as a business.”
Norfolk Wagyu Beef
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