Farming marbled beef earns premium

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First Light Foods managing director Gerard Hickey says demand for grass-fed Wagyu-cross beef is growing as consumers seek a premium product with provenance. Photo/Warren Buckland

By Patrick O'Sullivan

New Zealand beef needs to break out of the low-margin and volatile commodity sector and into the premium market, says First Light managing director Gerard Hickey.

The Hastings company has been exporting the "Rolls Royce of steak" - New Zealand grass-fed Wagyu - to the United States for five years and strong demand means more Wagyu farmers are needed to join the producer group.

He said globally there is a growing consumer demand for grass-fed beef and in the United States over the past 10 years demand has increased 25 to 30 per cent annually.

Most other New Zealand beef exports to the United States and blended with fatty offcuts from feedlot cattle to produce ground beef for hamburger patties.

Mr Hickey said New Zealand beef was missing out on the trend for high-margin food with health properties and provenance.

"Wagyu is already established worldwide as premium beef and utilising the advantages we have - the Producer Group model, a 100 per cent grass-fed diet, antibiotic-free status and a direct-to-consumer model - ensures that the animals are treated as premium cattle and return premium prices to all those in the supply chain."

As well as the United States First Light exports Wagyu to Europe and United Arab Emirates.

New Zealand Wagyu is a cross between Wagyu, Angus or a dairy breed and is the only grass-fed Wagyu in the world, he said.

"We are growing 30 per cent a year and looking for new farmers to work with us, buying a weaner calf and taking it through to finish or part-way there."

Brownrigg Agriculture is the exclusive supplier of genetics, ensuring a high marbling characteristic.

A 2012 seven-year Primary Growth Partnership with Ministry for Primary Industries accelerated plans to establish a commercial operation mixing high-quality genetics with grass-fed farming for "the ultimate quality beef".

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