Origin of Breed
The word Wagyu refers to all Japanese beef cattle ('Wa' means Japanese or Japanese-style and 'gyu' means cattle). Cattle were first introduced into Japan in the 2nd century as draft animals used in cultivation, so they were selected for physical endurance. This selection favored animals with more intra-muscular fat cells, which provided a readily available energy source. Japanese Wagyu derive from native Asian cattle, which were infused with British and European breeds in the late 1800's. Although the breed was closed to outside breed lines in 1910, regional isolation has produced a number of different lines with varying conformation. The dominant black Wagyu strains are Tottori, Tajima, Shimane, and Okayama. The other main "breed" of Wagyu, was developed on the island of Kyushu and are red in color. As with the blacks, there are two distinct strains-Kochi and Kumamoto. Kochi cattle were strongly influenced by Korean breeding while Kumamoto are believed to have considerable Simmental influence. Although, there are reports that most of the cattle were influenced by British and Continental breeds for a few generations nearly 100 years ago. Brown Swiss, Shorthorn, Devon, Simmental, Ayrshire, Korean, Holstein and Angus had been imported by 1887 and impacted today's Wagyu. It is important to recognize that the variation of conformation within the Wagyu breed is greater than the variation across British and European breeds. The three major black strains were evolved due to regional geographic isolation in Japan. These breeding differences have produced a Japanese national herd, which comprises 90% black cattle with the remainder being red.
Wagyu are black or red, with their horns straight to slightly curving forward and start off a whitish color then darken to black at the end.
Wagyu cattle are unusually healthy cattle and readily adapt to a wide range of climatic conditions. Wagyu cattle are very fertile and most females cycle before twelve months of age. Bulls can reliably service 50% more females than most other breeds. Their lower birth weights allow for great calving ease. They are known for their peaceful temperament, some think that it is because of their history with their special way of being grown. Wagyu and the specialized growing techniques have given rise to the famous Kobe beef, which is a very tender, very marbled beef carcass. Wagyu cattle have superior beef conversion and the ability to marble on both grain and pasture feeding. When crossed with other breeds. Wagyu increases marbling, improves the quality grade and adds more consistency to carcass quality.
Development in America
In 1976, the original import of these cattle to the U.S. consisted of two Tottori Black Wagyu and two Kumamoto Red Wagyu bulls. That was the only importation of Wagyu into the U.S. until 1993 when two male and three female Tajima cattle were imported. Later in 1994, 35 male and female cattle consisting of both red and black genetics reached the U.S. Most U.S. production was exported to Japan until 2003, when BSE was discovered and Japan and other countries stopped the import of beef for the U.S. However, chefs and others in the U.S. were aware of the superior eating quality of Wagyu and the domestic market then and now utilizes much of the U.S. production.
Registry and Improvement Programs
The American Wagyu Association is headquartered in Coeur d'Alene, ID. The Association provides registrations, transfers, performance data, sales and member services.