DRIVEN by artificial breeding programs and carcase performance data collection on a massive scale, an ambitious Poll Wagyu breeding program involving an alliance of seedstock producers across three states is making rapid progress.
Of all major beef cattle breeds employed in Australia, Wagyu is arguably the most heavily exposed to challenges surrounding horn status, Beef Central’s genetics editor Alastair Rayner says.
While poll genetics do not exist in the Japanese Fullblood Wagyu population worldwide, the stakeholders involved in Australia’s Poll Wagyu Pty Ltd program are now well-advanced in their quest to selectively breed purebred Wagyu, upgraded from other polled breeds including Shorthorn and Angus.
The resultant purebred animals typically carry at least 98pc Wagyu genetics, promising to deliver carcase performance more or less identical to the best available Fullblood cattle, while being either homozygous or heterozygous poll.
With the growing popularity of Wagyu genetics in Australia, there is a looming animal welfare challenge in the need to de-horn young cattle. When combined with additional labour costs, workplace safety issues surrounding horns, and production weightgain setbacks from the dehorning process (see details below), it created a compelling case to seek a ‘permanent genetic solution’ to horns in Wagyu cattle, rather than simply ‘managing the problem.’
Behind the Poll Wagyu Pty Ltd project launched in 2015 are three prominent Australian Wagyu breeders – Hammond brothers from Robbins Island in Tasmania; Central Queensland Wagyu breeder Darren Hamblin from Strathdale Wagyu, Middlemount; and Scott de Bruin from Mayura Wagyu near Millicent in South Australia.
Tackling the project at scale has been a significant part of the group’s success in developing polled lines of high performance cattle to date. For example, to produce 50 homozygous polled heifers from a heterozygous poll/heterozygous poll cross, the syndicate had to produce about 400 embryo transfer calves.
One of the key challenges seen by many across the industry in selecting for polled Wagyu from a ‘small’ gene pool was the risk of compromising critically important carcase performance along the way.
“Our biggest challenge with this project was making sure we did not sacrifice marbling performance and carcase weight, in the pursuit of polledness,” syndicate member Darren Hamblin told Beef Central.
“Certainly some onlookers accepted that we would ultimately be successful in breeding poll purebred Wagyu, but they suspected that it was likely to come at a cost, in terms of carcase performance,” he said.
“But our results suggest breeders can now go from a horned herd to a poll herd in one cross, by using homozygous poll bulls, without compromising marbling or carcase weight. Every calf will carry at least one poll gene.”
“We needed to get to the point where breeders could do it (inject polledness into their herds), but also do it with confidence, in terms of not compromising carcase performance,” Mr Hamblin said.
Already, some early buyers of poll purebred Wagyu bulls have bought the cattle for commercial, rather than seedstock production purposes.
While there are small, isolated pockets of Poll Wagyu purebred breeding occurring overseas, nothing comes close to the scale and sophistication of the program that is unfolding in Australia through the Poll Wagyu Pty Ltd program.
Mr Hamblin estimates that the project has seen about 3000 embryos implanted since it started four years ago. In recent years, numbers have grown to 1000-1200 embryos a year.
“The benefit of tackling the project on such a scale is that the syndicate members get access to so much kill data, so quickly,” he said. “The downside of course, is that such a project, based on ET, costs a very substantial amount of money.”
“It becomes a numbers game. Breed a handful of bulls and the chances of finding a really good one (in terms of carcase performance) in the population can be very low. But by breeding in larger numbers, the chances of finding elite performers are greatly increased,” Mr Hamblin said.
At his Strathdale operations in Central Queensland, more than 620 polled progeny have now been produced, mostly number 8s and 9s, with a few number 7s, ranging from newborn calves to two and a half years of age.
The main polled homozygous purebred sire used in the program (BAR R 52Y) has already produced carcase data from 636 progeny.
“52Y has certainly out-performed our expectations in terms of carcase performance,” Mr Hamblin said.
His slaughtered poll progeny carcase weights are averaging 461kg, and marbling score is averaging 7.9, against average marbling performance across (horned) Fullblood Wagyu bulls used in Australia of around 7.4-7.5.
“Because we have 52Y as a reference sire across the whole program, with so much data available, the real benefit now is in being able to rank the polled cows he has been joined to,” Mr Hamblin said.
“There are some cows whose performance is not great, and others which are producing unbelievable carcase performance – marbling score 9s and 9-plus, either using 52Y, or another two Polled purebred sires we are using,” he said.
The project is now at the point where the group members are only moving on with the best purebred maternal line genetics, ‘turfing-out’ the non-performers.
Within the Poll Wagyu network, carcase records are now in place on more than 700 carcases from poll genetics.
“With this data behind us, both with Bar R 52Y genetics and Itoshigenami Jr genetics, we are moving forward with great confidence,” Mr Hamblin said.
Given that 52Y was now well-proven as an elite sire performer for carcase traits, the Poll Wagyu project is now expanding into other poll genetics, using some of his sons and daughters, and providing scope to bring other Fullblood genetics into the program. Some of these are well-known industry Fullblood sires for carcase traits, as well as other lines bred by the Poll Wagyu group members themselves.
“Given where we now stand, we can introduce any Fullblood genetics into the Poll program, and continue to breed polled Wagyu cattle,” Mr Hamblin said.
Breeding from one of the syndicate’s homozygous poll sires, the group can now breed 100pc poll progeny, in the following ways:
The syndicate’s breeding programs have already built up a ‘very substantial’ population of homozygous poll heifers to work with, Mr Hamblin said.
“We have moved to PP (homozygous poll) heifers quite rapidly, simple by producing so many calves.”
The group started with HPs (heterozygous poll) over HPs, producing one quarter PP homozygous in the next generation. The PP heifer calves were retained, and everything else was sent to the meatworks, delivering full-brother carcase data on those PP heifers.
The group is now starting to mate its PP heifers to other high performance Fullblood (horned) bulls such as the Hamblin’s MOYFD0507 MOYHU F D507, Itsohigenami Jr, Yasafuku Jr and DM 100.
“Whatever the desirable traits in the best horned bulls that are out there, we can now introduce them to the poll program,” Mr Hamblin said.
“It means taking two steps forward, one step back, but we continue to make progress, at a really good rate,” he said.
In the exact opposite to this mating strategy, homozygous poll bulls have for the past two years also been used over Fullblood (horned) Wagyu heifers and cows, producing the same result, in 100pc heterozygous poll progeny.
“What this does is help speed up our genetic diversity, because we now get the pick of our Fullblood cows that we have extensive carcase data on, to introduce to the poll breeding program,” Mr Hamblin said.
In addition to the Polled carcases, the group collectively now has more than 15,000 carcase data results across the three herds. This data on performing Fullblood sires, as well as performing Fullblood and Purebred dams, has provided a huge head-start in producing high performance polled cattle, compared to when the Wagyu industry first emerged 20 years ago.
“We are pushing forward with the top performers based on real carcase data right from the beginning,” Mr Hamblin said.
Demonstrating the depth of the syndicate’s commitment to breeding only high performance polls, Mr Hamblin earlier this month sent 37 mostly homozygous poll purebred Wagyu bulls to the meatworks, purely because the program now has enough carcase data back on their full brothers to determine that those animals were not ‘up to scratch’ in terms of carcase merit.
Given some of the stratospheric prices that the first handful of poll male calves have made at auction in the past two years, some would question why those bull calves were not sold for breeding.
“If someone does not put the selection pressure on now, at these very early stages, the poll Wagyu breed will become a mess,” was Mr Hamblin’s response.
“We could probably pump out 1000 Poll Wagyu bulls into the market next year if we had to, but that would not necessarily be doing the right thing by the breed,” he said.
The broader project is seeing a two-pronged approach, with the southern collaborators (Scott de Bruin at Mayura and Hammond Brothers in Tasmania) going down a somewhat different genetic path to Darren Hamblin’s Strathdale program in Queensland, with the ultimate aim of sharing the genetics from the offspring around the group.
All kill data from the three programs is shared in a common database. This allows the group to examine the performance of different dam lines in three different environments, with the ideal being good performances in all three.
“Taking this approach, we think we are far ahead of where we would have been, working individually,” Mr Hamblin said. “We believe that our big picture approach, high selection pressure, top outcross genetics, and commitment to quality has already laid an excellent foundation for Polled Wagyu cattle around the world.”
Darren Hamblin has done some rough sums on what he sees as the cost of dehorning to the Australian Wagyu industry, measured in terms of weightgain setback in calves, time and labour involved in dehorning young cattle, and calf loss. His figures do not factor-in any additional costs, like therapeutic pain relief.
Mr Hamblin’s own records suggest an average weightgain setback in Fullblood calves after dehorning of 15kg.
Based on figures calculated back when Fullblood feeders were worth as much as 600c/kg, he estimated the total production value impact at about $20,000 per bull, over his lifespan, when used in natural service. Even at a figure of 300c/kg liveweight, the calculated figure was still $11,000 under natural matings, over the life of the bull.
Under a scenario where 120 calves a year are produced through AI, the figure grows dramatically to $60,000-$120,000 in value over the life of the bull, using the same c/kg value figures.
“In intensive grazing systems, the branding or marking process can be more than 50pc faster when dehorning is eliminated,” Mr Hamblin said. “In extensive systems, poll cattle also eliminate the need for an additional early muster, and losses associated with dehorning of older calves.”