Diversification has fast become the key to survival for many businesses during this decade, but for one Norfolk farmer, diversifying came from a passion for producing what he believes is the best beef in the world – Wagyu.
Sam Frost is a third-generation turkey farmer, but it was a trip to Australia four years ago that changed everything for him. “I remember that very first time I tried Wagyu beef,” he recalls as he proudly shows off his herd of Wagyu in the early summer sunshine. “I was in Australia, and I saw it on a menu. The moment I tried it was a truly life-changing moment. The flavour was like no beef I had ever had before, and I knew that breeding these cattle was the path I wanted to go down. I have always liked cattle, and this moment showed me that this was where my own diversification as a farmer lay.”
Sam’s grandfather, Jack, was a turkey farmer, and both Sam and his father carry on this tradition. The turkeys are at a farm in Old Buckenham, and as you can imagine, Christmas is their peak with 35,000 turkeys on the farm. Compare this to Sam’s Norfolk Wagyu herd, which he has slowly and carefully built up, and comprises 48 cattle, and you can begin to understand that Wagyu is something very different indeed.
“Breeding Wagyu cows is all about patience,” Sam explains. “The gestation period for cattle is just over nine months, and then the calves are reared until they are two-and-a-half years old – more than double the time for other breeds. So realistically, you are looking around three-and-a-half years from when you plan to breed to when you can sell your produce to the public. It is all a waiting game – but my word, it is worth it!”
Wagyu beef comes from Japan – wa meaning Japanese and gyu meaning beef. Very few fullblood Wagyu cattle were exported from Japan, and all the fullblood Wagyu cattle in the world come from this small group. This knowledge, plus a startling awareness of what the public want, has led Sam to develop two groups of cattle. The first is fullblood Wagyu, highly marbled and a truly premium choice. The second is a cross of fullblood Wagyu with dairy cattle, known as an F1 cross. While legally allowed to be sold as Wagyu in the UK, Sam makes it clear to the consumer that this is a cross, suggesting that trying this first is a delicious, and more economical, introduction to Wagyu beef.
“What makes Wagyu so different is the marbling,” explains Sam. “Marbling in beef is one of the biggest factors linked to taste and quality. The marbling – intramuscular fat – goes throughout the beef, and it is this that gives the beef its tenderness as well as enhancing the flavour.
“Wagyu are a slow-growing cattle, smaller than most other breeds, and they live on a pasture diet for most of their lives. To create the marbling, the cattle are fed grain from our own farm for the last few months. By using our own grains, nothing goes to waste at the farm, and I know that the cattle get the very best that they can in terms of food and care. The result is beef that is highly marbled, incredibly tender, and with a buttery flavour that is like no other.”
Indeed, as a bonus to the incredible taste, Wagyu beef is also good for you; the marbling is rich in omega-3 and omega-6, making it higher in monounsaturated fats compared to regular beef.
Sam started with four cows and a bull, purchased four years ago from Richard Western. He also bought some youngstock, and slowly began his breeding programme. “I was really lucky with the bull,” explains Sam. “Like all animals, he passed on traits to his progeny and in this case, he bred really well-marbled stock.
“From there, I added fullblood Wagyu purchased at auctions, and slowly grew the business from there. I have just acquired a fantastic fullblood bull from the Worstead Estate, also in Norfolk and who are also Wagyu breeders. In addition, I imported some embryos from Australia – through a turkey breeder, would you believe! Of the 12 embryos I imported, five have taken and, if we get females from there, they will be in the top 1-2% of Wagyu females to be found outside of Japan.”
Sam’s aim is to reach a herd of 100 cattle, by adding the five calves next year, and then another 10, 20, and so on until he is at his target. “This means I will be able to provide Wagyu beef all year around,” he explains. “I sell directly to the public through my website, and I prefer to do this. I have had many chefs wanting to buy the prime cuts of the Wagyu, but I am a fan of nose to tail, and would like a chef to buy a whole cow and see how he cooks it; did you know that the tail is considered a delicacy in Japan!”
One butcher who Sam works closely with is Deaglan Hall from Palfrey & Hall in Bungay and Debenham, both in Suffolk. “Deaglan understands what I am trying to do, and he has taken half a cow for his shop before, which has sold well.”
As Sam shows us around, it is clear that he has a connection with them. Maki is a steer that Sam has particular affection for, and he admits that it is easier not to name his herd. “Being a farmer, you are used to the circle of life,” he says. “But some of the cattle you cannot help but get close to, and Maki is one of them.
“The welfare of my herd is very important to me, as it is with all our livestock. They are out on lush, rich grass for most of the year, with crops, silage and fodder grown on the farm fed during the winter months. Our focus is on preserving this world for future generations, and by feeding our cattle from our own land, we reduce our carbon footprint hugely, as well as having the added bonus of knowing exactly what we are feeding them.”
Arriving back at the farm, Sam cooks some steak for us to try – a lesser known Denver steak or a ‘chuck under blade’ steak. “I cook my steak simply,” he grins. “All it needs is heat, salt and pepper, and then let the meat speak for itself. I don’t think that it needs butter or sauce, as the meat is so well marbled that it just melts in your mouth.”
He is right, of course. The Denver steak is succulent and full of flavour, and it is also incredibly filling. “I do find that Wagyu cooks more quickly than other beef,” Sam adds. “My favourite is the rib-eye. This is where Wagyu comes into its own, as this is already an amazing cut, while the fillet doesn’t really show off the great qualities of this beef.”
With an eye on expansion, joining Norfolk Wagyu Beef this summer is Sam’s sister, Rosanna. “Rosanna, named after my grandmother, is currently Executive Assistant at the Royal Academy of Culinary Arts. She will bring so much to the business, including the marketing, leaving me to do what I love most, which is spending time with the cattle.”
Sam plans to continue to expand his fullblood and F1 lines at the farm, with the Wagyu x Dairy cross being much more affordable for the public who would like to try a taste of this beef. “I am conscious of the times we are living in, and not everyone can afford £30 for just one steak,” he explains. “That is why I have the two groups. I try to put myself in the customers’ shoes and see what they would like, think about how much they are prepared to spend, and I plan my breeding accordingly.”
As we prepare to leave, with Sam heading off to check the turkeys before going back to the cattle, it is clear that this is a diversification that is not only proving to be successful, but also has the chance to continue to grow – just as his own vision does, all of which came from choosing ‘Wagyu’ off the menu when in the land Down Under.
- To find out more visit the website www.norfolkwagyubeef.co.uk or follow Norfolk Wagyu on social media @norfolkwagyubeef