Prized Wagyu cattle herd is changing with the times

Wagyu beef cattle on the Worstead Estate

Wagyu beef cattle on the Worstead Estate - Credit: Chris Hill

A Norfolk herd of highly-prized Wagyu beef cattle is continuing to grow - by adapting to the peaks and troughs of shifting consumer buying habits.

The Worstead Estate, near North Walsham, launched its Wagyu venture in 2016 after financial pressures forced the sale of the Paterson family's renowned dairy herd.

The Japanese breed is famed across the world for its beef's fine "marbling" - the intricate pattern of fat which gives the meat its sought-after tenderness and flavour.

But in the five years since establishing Norfolk's first Wagyu herd, Bruce Paterson of Worstead Farms has needed to deal with major changes in the market for its premium meat.

Bruce Paterson with his Wagyu beef cattle on the Worstead Estate

Bruce Paterson showing his Wagyu beef cattle to tour visitors at the Worstead Estate - Credit: Chris Hill

The Covid lockdown halted its restaurant trade overnight, prompting a refocus on direct online sales - and now while hospitality businesses are recovering after the restrictions, the cost of living crisis has affected retail orders.

"The herd has grown, but the sales side has been so topsy-turvy and we have had to think more on the hoof, if you will excuse the pun," said Mr Paterson.

"Initially most went into trade, but at the beginning of the pandemic we had to go into online retail overnight and deal with all the lockdowns and restrictions going up and down.

"Then just as everything was getting up and running and looking good, the cost of living has hampered the retail side.

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"But at the moment we are getting plenty of trade enquiries so we are still quite optimistic for the season. We will have to wait to see how it pans out, but we are getting enquiries from local restaurants and butchers, so there is still a market out there."

About a third of the animals in the 120-strong herd are full-blood Wagyu, with the rest being Angus crosses.

"We want to expand that, but we will wait to see how the markets go," said Mr Paterson. "With anything you produce, whether it is food or iPhones, it needs to be what the market demands.

Wagyu beef cattle on the Worstead Estate

Wagyu beef cattle on the Worstead Estate - Credit: Chris Hill

"It may be that the F1 (the first-generation Angus cross) is cheaper. If we find that people are chomping at the bit for my Wagyu cross, and orders for the full-blood are harder to come by, or vice versa, we will be led by where the market is."

To build closer relationships with its consumers, the estate has introduced Wagyu walking tours, taking visitors out into the pastures to learn how the animals are reared, before a lunch of Wagyu beef burgers in the cattle shed.

Cattle farmer Bruce Paterson cooking Wagyu beef burgers for visitors touring the Worstead Estate

Cattle farmer Bruce Paterson cooking Wagyu beef burgers for visitors touring the Worstead Estate - Credit: Chris Hill

At last weekend's event visitors saw the the herd's original pedigree cow, named Yoshima, now eight years old, and the bull, named Miyagi.

"There are a number of reasons for the tours," said Mr Paterson. "It is a thank you to all the people who supported us through Covid.

"But people also want to understand what is going on, and we want a more educational arm to the business."

Wagyu beef cattle grazing on the Worstead Estate

Wagyu beef cattle grazing on the Worstead Estate - Credit: Chris Hill

Visitors were also shown how the farm's "mob grazing" system aims to balance meat production with year-round carbon storage and wildlife habitats in the pastures.

The animals are rotated around a series of one-acre "cells", allowing optimum time for the grass to regrow, while focusing the nutrient benefits of the animals' manure.

The farm hopes its high-welfare herd will become RSPCA-assured this year. 

The pampered animals listen to calming "spa music" in the calving yard, and the growing calves' feed rations include brewers' grain - a by-product of beer production at a nearby brewery.

"We are drilling down into our supply and trying to get as close as we can to the diet the cattle needs using by-products," said Mr Paterson.

"We are trying to reduce food miles and reduce carbon and produce a quality meat at the end of the day. We need to make sure the taste of that meat is where people expect it to be, because without that the rest is just noise."

Wagyu beef cattle on the Worstead Estate

Wagyu beef cattle on the Worstead Estate - Credit: Chris Hill

Cattle farmer Bruce Paterson cooking Wagyu beef burgers for visitors touring the Worstead Estate

Cattle farmer Bruce Paterson cooking Wagyu beef burgers for visitors touring the Worstead Estate - Credit: Chris Hill

Wagyu beef cattle on the Worstead Estate

Wagyu beef cattle on the Worstead Estate - Credit: Chris Hill

Bruce Paterson with his Wagyu beef cattle on the Worstead Estate

Bruce Paterson showing his Wagyu beef cattle to tour visitors at the Worstead Estate - Credit: Chris Hill