“HOW often do I eat Wagyu?”
“Oh, not more than five times a week,” Nick Sher said with a laugh.
And so Nick sums up his love affair with Wagyu, and his fundamental role in the development of this product and the overall industry in Australia.
Nick and Vicki Sher are Sher Wagyu, a boutique Wagyu operation based over three owned properties and seven agistment properties from south western Victoria to north eastern Victoria and the Riverina.
Ballan, a small town between Bacchus Marsh and Ballarat, is home to the Shers, and it was here in the early ’90s that they took the first steps into the world of Wagyu breeding.
In the late 1980s, Nick had researched Wagyus and thought they sounded interesting as they produced a completely different quality of meat from anything that was available at the time.
“We didn’t have our own farm, or herd,” Nick said.
“We basically started from nothing and needed to produce something for a niche market that had some real commercial possibilities.”
And possibilities Wagyu did have.
Firstly the Shers discovered there was potential for strong export market to Japan.
And after meeting with numerous Japanese distributors who expressed their interest, the Shers purchased some of the first Wagyu embryos imported into Australia and bred the first purebred calves born here in 1992.
Japan was their focus, and live trade their initial market, with the Japanese interested to see the results of feeder cattle imported from Australia and then fed under their specific regime.
In those early days the Japanese did not think that Australia would be able to feed the cattle to their exacting standards and produce the quality of meat they were after.
But with the Shers excelling at producing quality pure and cross-bred Wagyu cattle, their customers enquired if they could progress from developing cattle to also processing it in Australia.
Nick believed they were more than capable and the business evolved from live trade to meat sales.
Feeding the cattle on a barley-based Japanese style ration, supplemented with hay, rolled grain, canola meal and wheat by-products, the Shers produced beef of a comparable quality to high-grade Japanese bred and fed Wagyu.
The product was slightly different to meat developed in Japan, due to variances in feed and the production system, however, the Shers’ beef was greeted favourably by the Japanese market and so began a relationship with Japan that continues to this day.
Nick likens the eating experience to the variety of good wines that exist on the market.
There are variances and similarities but whether a particular variety is better than another is in the opinion of the consumer.
“The Wagyu we produce is a really top quality product,” Nick said.
“But what we produce is not as rich as the Japanese Wagyu. The Japanese Wagyu is very rich so you eat a much smaller quantity of it.”
The Shers sell varying grades of Wagyu, from a range of cross bred and fullblood cattle, which dictates the level of marbling in the meat and ultimately the richness.
They also now sell their product all over the world, with distributors in 14 countries, and a loyal customer base in Australia.
“We are able to sell all the various grades of our product, with people in Australia chasing the higher marbling because they’re looking for that eating experience,” Nick said.
Incidentally, Japan does not purchase the Shers’ top products, taking more secondary cuts employing their extensive knowledge and experience to use them.
The premium products go to different markets throughout Asia, USA and the Maldives, with some of the best products sold in Australia.
These extensive export and local commitments primarily resulted from a need to branch out and not have so many eggs in one Japanese basket.
In September 2001, Japan discovered a case of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy or Mad Cow Disease, and the entire Japanese beef market collapsed.
Then, when the market did rally, the Japanese had lost trust in meat from overseas and were reluctant to support imported products.
If Nick did not have a loyal customer in Japan who honoured the business commitment to the Shers, their enterprise would have seriously suffered.
However, the unpredictability of the market did force the same customer to hold off re-ordering until the situation had settled down, and Nick was forced to find new markets.
At the same time as expanding into Singapore and Hong Kong, people in Australia, predominantly chefs, had heard about the Shers’ product and started approaching them.
From the original business model of supplying Japan, Nick was surprised at how strongly Sher Wagyu grew in Australia.
Back in the early 2000s, there were very few branded beef products on the market, but the food scene has changed, and Wagyu is now a well-recognised and sought after commodity.
Having such a strong product with loyal support from customers and consumers has ensured the business remains viable even under current trying conditions.
“We’ve been through this pretty severe drought, which has meant a really high cost of feeding and feeding a lot more younger cattle than we normally would because there’s not enough pasture,” Nick said.
“It’s not a great time at the moment, but our meat sales are still strong, so there is light at the end of the tunnel.”
Consistent feed is a crucial part of any Wagyu operation, with Nick needing to ensure all cattle are raised on the same ingredients and rations.
At harvest, the Shers had to source and purchase an entire year’s hay requirement to ensure they were covered.
Grain is usually forward contracted and delivered on a regular basis.
Cattle are then pasture raised until 18 months and then finished in feedlots for between 400 and 500 days.
The weight gain is gradual at a kilogram per day, with each beast consuming between 12 and 15 kilograms of high roughage feed to maintain this growth.
Nick monitors the cattle all the time, with no exact time for cattle to exit the feedlots.
“They finish at different stages, and then they’re ready to be processed,” Nick said.
“They get to a stage, where that’s it, they’re finished, and there’s no benefit for you or the animal to keep it going.”
The added maturity of the cattle assists with marbling development and ensures that their bodies can handle the weight gain, with the majority of the beasts going to slaughter weighing in at about 750 kilograms.
The Shers process 400 head per month, around 5000 per year.
To keep this operation running smoothly, Nick maintains 7000 cattle in the feedlots at any one time.
It is a massive undertaking.
However, it is necessary for the consistency of the product that Sher Wagyu is renowned for.
This consistency has been honed and perfected since the early 90s and the arrival of those first Wagyu embryos.
They have constantly looked at genetics and researched fat composition, to tailor their genetic herd and add to it.
They have refined how they feed the cattle and the all-important grain finishing.
And the Shers have addressed grazing management, and improved soil and pasture composition.
With a changing climate, they have also instigated different farm management techniques to cope with more volatile weather conditions.
All this and they are still very hands-on in a farming operation of 15,000 head of cattle overall.
“From where we started it has certainly become more complex and challenging,” Nick said.
“But you don’t start off doing it all at once, you start off breeding cattle, and then it has all evolved.
“I didn’t think we’d end up with this branded product, marketing our beef into 14 different countries and working directly with chefs.
“It’s been a fantastic ride and we’ve loved it.”