“Prime Plus” Wagyu Cattle near Lake Erie have Japanese Ancestry
Retired feed dealer and horse aficionado Mark Sommerville previously preferred prime steaks such as Black Angus for his BBQ.
But then his son, Wesley, brought home a chunk of Wagyu beef while visiting from Toronto. This beef, noted for its intra-muscular marbling and tender texture, was so sumptuous that Mark decided to raise some himself.
Therefore last year, Sommerville, in partnership with Wes, created a new business, Woodhouse Wagyu. Soon, an Ontario Wagyu breeder brought four young steers, aged 13 to 15 months to the family’s 65-acre farm on Highway 24 East in the former Woodhouse Township. The cattle will enjoy what Sommerville calls a “stress-free life” until they reach 29 or 30 months – the standard Wagyu slaughter age.
The young steers arrived at a later age for finishing than most traditional Canadian breeds because they take longer to wean off and grow to slaughter weight, said Sommerville.
Wagyu cattle originate from Japan. According to the American Wagyu Association – which registers Japanese cattle within the USA and in countries such as Canada and Australia-- Wagyu simply translates to the Japanese terms, Wa, meaning Japanese, and Gyu, or “Cow”. There are four strains of Wagyu, with only two strains, the Japanese Black and Japanese Brown, available outside of Japan.
Sommerville raises the Japanese Black or “Kobe” line, which he said originated from the Kobe region of Japan and is noted for its high degree of inter-muscular marbling. Because this breed served as the Japanese workhorse prior to the twentieth century, Sommerville said that Kobe Wagyu likely developed its intramuscular marbling in order to provide the “pull” needed by farmers.
Today, Kobe Wagyu cattle are valued for their tender cuts. Their beef rankings start at Prime and go higher -- the coveted cuts that restaurateurs prefer. A few bulls also go to Ontario Black Angus and Holstein producers for herd improvement.
Wagyu aficionados allege that Kobe beef has health benefits that may even rival those of fats such as olive and salmon oils.
Kobe beef’s high fat content consists mainly of heart-healthy monounsaturated fat and high levels of Omega 3 and 6 fatty acids, which are crucial for many body processes. It also has more conjugated linoleic acid, and lower cholesterol levels than most beef breeds, along with a low melting point and what Sommerville described as a buttery and creamy taste. “The best Wagyu is the Kobe beef.”
“I’ve never tasted such good beef such as this!” Sommerville exclaimed, while speaking of its almost melt-in-your mouth texture. “This beef is Prime Plus! You know that for beef, Prime is the Prince – it’s only three percent of the retail market and those cuts usually go straight to restaurants. Most online sellers of Wagyu get sold out before the animals mature.”
Sommerville said that a 10-ounce Kobe Wagyu steak retails in Canada for as much as $120, but he added, “You can feed four people with it, and with its fat content, it’s like eating a 10 ounce brick of butter – you can’t do it.”
Sommerville chose to simply finish Wagyu cattle for now. His land, the former Sowden Farm, purchased in 1989, has only 10 acres of hay and pasture available, which he previously used to raise horses. The balance of the land is forested, and adjoins the Sowden Tract near Lake Erie. (Mark and his partner, Penny, live in what is still known as “the old Sowden House”).
“I owned a feed store south of Simcoe for ten years. I understand the feed business. I have been involved with riding horses most of my life so when I bought this property, I fenced in pastures and created riding trails through the 50-acre woodlot. That pasture is where the young steers graze. There is another section that is hooked up to the barn where we finish them. They eat grain and grass that are formulated for inter-muscular fat, that spider web of fat that makes Wagyu meat so distinctive.”
The Woodhouse Wagyu Face book page portrays “the boys” as leading a tranquil life prior to their final end. Sommerville’s husbandry prioritizes bovine stress reduction, using natural controls as often as possible. For instance, he sprinkled two applications of 10,000 eggs of a parasitic wasp around the barn’s containment area, so that the cattle are not pestered by flies. “They are an extremely healthy animal.”
Sommerville keeps the herd small: the four steer currently fattening up for slaughter later this year. They will sell to restaurants, but Sommerville hints that his local abattoir is interested in keeping some steak for local sales.
”We do not want to be big. We want to produce an excellent product that people can buy for special occasions.”