Beef focus: Wagyu leads the way on a Co. Kildare beef enterprise

Farming in Kilcullen, Co. Kildare, Oliver O’Hanlon has been working the land since 1975. Originally, Oliver ran a dairy herd of predominately Friesian cows – moving to Mountbeliarde cows in the latter years – on 90ac of land.

However, the family farm changed dramatically in 1997; falling profit margins focused the Kildare-based farmer’s mind and he knew it was time for a change.

Oliver, who was working alongside his father Greg at the time, switched to a 100% beef enterprise. He started breeding pedigree Belgian Blues; any animals that failed to make the grade were sold as stores.

But, as time progressed, Oliver realised that it wasn’t a cheap enterprise and the costs of production were growing year-to-year.

Oliver began: “The fact that I was getting older and my father had retired meant that the workload was bigger. I needed an animal that would calve on its own.

“I seen an article about the most expensive beef in the world and I thought I’d have nothing to lose by doing some research to see can it be produced in Ireland; the rest is history.”

In 2007, he imported 50 Wagyu embryos from Australia. On this, he said: “I took a major risk and I could have been buying anything. I was talking to a man at the other end of the computer and I had to trust him.

It was a lot of money, but thankfully it all worked out for the best in the end.

The Wagyu embryos arrived in 2008 and the first offspring were born in May 2009. Now, Oliver is the largest breeder of full-blood Wagyu in Ireland.

Wagyu beef

Wagyu is a breed of cattle which originated in Japan. The meat itself has a high level of fat marbling and is extremely tender. Commenting on the taste of Wagyu beef, he said: “There’s absolutely no comparison. When you put it in your mouth, there’s so much happening, it’s unbelievable.

You’d fight your own child for the last bit of it; that’s how nice it is.

Oliver started Wagyu Ireland in 2010 and that gave him an internet presence. The first sales were to Northern Ireland, followed by France, the UK and – more recently – Spain and Scotland. He has also sold some semen, frozen embryos and scanned in-calf recipients.

Breeding and Calving

In 2017, Oliver sourced semen and embryos from the “best herds” in Australia and from bulls who had the highest results in feedlots for growth, marbling and tenderness.

I intend now to infuse these bloodlines into my own stock and to have the best embryos available in Europe.

Oliver carries out all of the AI himself.

“We try and sex the gestating embryos at 60-110 days, if possible. For me, heifers are gold dust. There is not one full-blood heifer for sale of any significance in Europe.

“My goal is to run a herd of 50 full-blood Wagyu cows and produce quality offspring.

“Any breeder I’ve spoken to about Wagyu has said that they were sorry they sold breeding stock too soon and they didn’t wait and build up a bigger herd first.

“Before we multiply our Wagyu, we need to get it right. Only then can we go ahead with confidence. It’s one of those things that you can’t bluff.

“If you sell a bull and he’s not doing the business, it’s not good for us as breeders. I like to get things right. I want to build up my brand name – Ohanasaki Wagyu – so somebody can come to my farm blindfolded and go away with a bull that will do the business.

“Since I started breeding Wagyu, I have never had a fertility problem with a bull. They are so enthusiastic, it’s unreal.”

Oliver describes his herd as easy-calving; the calves are small and hardy.

“For the most part, you could go away on holidays and there would be no problems. But saying that, the one you don’t watch may be the one that has a leg caught,” he explained.

“I never normally have any problems with milk and, in some instances, a few of my cows have reared twins very easily.

“However, I have had one or two cows who were poor at producing milk and these have since been removed from the herd.

From a docility perspective, they are a dream to work with and most of the herd calves in the field.

On the ground, the breed is easily managed. However, Oliver has noticed that offspring can reach puberty very early.

Herd management

“When it comes to the management of the herd, I take it very seriously and I have to. I spend many nights out with the cows and heifers during the breeding season.

“Embryo results here have been very good. But, it’s a thing that doesn’t take any prisoners.

“You really need to know the exact hour that the donor cow or heifer and recipient came into standing heat. You then need to match the egg of the pedigree animal to the crossbred cow.

Some of my cows are excellent at giving embryos; more of them are useless. There is a massive shortage of embryos in Europe.

“We have tested our cows for recessive gene disorders at the University of Queensland and the results have all come back negative. We had only two females failing one test in five,” he explained.

The Co. Kildare farmer explained how he sells about 50% of his breeding stock in Ireland and the remaining 50% overseas.

“If someone from overseas rings and organises an appointment, nine times out of 10 it’s a guaranteed sale. However, Ireland can be a different story.

“I’ve no interest in selling crossbreds any more. I want to be breeding full-blood stock. At the minute, I sell my stores at around 400kg and I get about €3.20/kg.”

Looking to the future

Oliver gave his view on the future of the Irish beef industry, stating: “We are giving away our market to chicken and pigmeat and that is only going to get worse.

Suckler farmers will be extinct. They have money repellent spray and they must spray themselves with it everyday.

“We’ve spent a fortune going to the US trying to open up the niche market over there. In the end, we sold 16t of beef; a small parish in Ireland would eat 16t of beef,” he explained.

“It’s about time Minister Creed and the Department of Agriculture got their finger out and put energy behind the Wagyu, instead of dancing around it or keeping their heads in the sand.

“Next spring, this country needs to be getting cows in calf to quality Wagyu bulls, with an EBV (estimated breeding value) of 130 or more. So when the minister goes to Japan, he’s able to say: ‘We can sell you Wagyu-cross beef.’

I think every cow in the country should be in-calf to Wagyu and I think we should be chasing the most lucrative market.

“The bank manager does not care whether the carcass is an E grade or a U grade or whether it’s a 3= score for fat. All they care about is that there is a high enough figure written on the cheque,” he concluded.