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Professor shares experiences with beef’s global popularity

Kindra Gordon Published on 24 January 2015
cattle grazing in China

“I’ve never seen so many Bentley cars at one stoplight as I have in China.”

That observation by Tom Seitz characterizes the burgeoning economic growth currently unfolding in China.

It’s an exciting time, both for the Chinese, who are experiencing new-found prosperity, and for the global trading partners eager to supply an array of products to millions of new consumers.

In the agricultural realm, beef is among the products of particular interest to Asian consumers. It’s a rite of passage; as individuals improve their economic status, they also have more disposable income for better food – namely, protein. And for many, beef reigns as the king of proteins.

Seitz, an assistant professor of international studies at the University of Wyoming, has traveled to Asia almost every year since 1981, allowing him to see this economic transition first-hand. He says, “I have seen almost indescribable changes in societies and tremendous development take place in much of the region.”

He continues, “The transition away from socialism since the late ‘70s has brought 100 million people out of poverty over there.” He acknowledges that for the densely populated continent there are still a lot of improvements to be made, but for many, life has become more comfortable.

Seitz confirms China’s – and other Asian countries’ – interest in beef is real. “There is a growing demand for beef. It is viewed as a healthy food,” he reports. And along with that, Seitz says “luxury beef” is especially in demand because status is very important in Eastern culture.

“There’s going to be a growing market for the really high-end beef,” Seitz says.

To that end, Seitz explains that the Chinese are also very interested in raising cattle to produce their own domestic beef supply.

And that is where his Wyoming ranch experience has intersected with his international relations work.

Wyoming and Wagyu

Seitz married into a family that has been ranching near Savery, Wyoming, for six generations. He says, “When I first arrived on the scene in 1992, the family was transitioning from Herefords to Angus, as were most of the ranchers in the area.”

By 2002, when Seitz and his wife, Stephanie Anderson, also an associate professor at the University of Wyoming, started ranching her portion of the property (separate from the relatives), they determined they could only support 200 to 250 head on the pastures and hay meadows available to them.

Seitz says they realized, “That many cattle wouldn’t make us much of a living – unless they were to be expensive cattle.” This led them to their journey with Wagyu.

Seitz explains that while serving in Japan with the Navy, he had encountered the famous “Kobe beef.” He says, “It was great, and it was certainly expensive.”

From that recollection, the couple began to research the Kobe beef breed – Wagyu – and found they were available in limited numbers in the U.S. Seitz says, “We connected with Ralph Valdez, one of the original breeders of full-blood (100 percent) Wagyu in this country, and joined the American Wagyu Association, where we found more support. We were on our way.”

Since 2004, they have focused on raising Wagyu cattle, first breeding F1 crossbreds with Angus cows purchased from family and, more recently, working with embryo transfer to grow their full-blood Wagyu herd and produce genetics to sell.

Seitz, who has served on the AWA board of directors, admits that in their predominately Hereford or Angus corner of the world, the Wagyu have often been chided by the neighbors as skinny Japanese cows.

Madeleine helps dad Tom Seitz's with A.I.

But despite that, their foray into Wagyu over the past decade has prospered. They now maintain a herd of 80 Wagyu: 78 full-blood and 2 polled purebreds.

Seitz credits embryologist Dr. Tom Rea in Colorado for helping them produce and freeze embryos for sale. They sell embryos, semen and full-blood Wagyu breeding stock as well as grass-fed Wagyu beef on occasion. “We find they perform and marble well on just grass and hay,” Seitz says.

And that takes the story back to Asia.

Asian interest

Over the past several years, Seitz began to get inquiries from Asian farmers seeking Wagyu embryos and hoping to begin raising high-end beef in their own countries. One of those inquiries came in 2010 from interested parties in China’s Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. Seitz flew over to meet with them, and a business arrangement ensued.

Working with a bilingual business partner based in Asia, Seitz has been spending summers in China, working with local farmers and officials, setting up cooperatives for people to raise and to fatten Wagyu crossbred cattle. He was able to get his first permit to send 100 embryos to China in 2012 – a nearly three-year process.

Currently, he has a permit for 400 embryos and 5,000 straws of semen that were put into Chinese cows this summer, and another 5,000 straws in 2015.

It’s indeed a family venture. His 16-year-old daughter accompanied him to help A.I. cattle this summer.

In Inner Mongolia, most cowherds are Fleckvieh Simmental, along with native Mongolian Yellow Cattle. Seitz explains this is because government planning has long played a role in China’s agriculture, and one result of this planning in the past was that the various farming provinces of China each specialized in a different breed of cattle.

Seitz says they have yet to harvest their first F1 steers in China but are looking forward to seeing what results they get with the Wagyu-Simmental cross. They are also breeding a limited number of Angus-Wagyu crosses and, of course, are building some full-blood Wagyu from embryos.

In addition to the market in China, Seitz says there has been lots of interest in establishing breeding beef genetics in Singapore, Malaysia and Vietnam. He says, “Our market has much more demand than we can fill.

In the future, we will be working with some American cooperator herds in order to supply the demand.” Some of that trade will be Wagyu genetics; some will be other beef breeds.

Seitz explains that a lot of the interest in Wagyu beef stems from research indicating its health benefits. As an added attribute, the Wagyu beef herds he is working to establish in Asia will be organic as well.

Additionally, Seitz is trying to focus on grass-fed finishing. His experience has shown that Wagyu perform well on grass and produce a delicious, marbled, grass-finished end product.

He notes that China has several readily available, inexpensive byproduct feedstuffs which would minimize the need to feed cattle with grains that could otherwise be used for human consumption.

Looking ahead, Seitz admits, “It will be interesting to see how the future plays out.” He acknowledges, “International relations is my business more than cattle.” And, because of his international experience, he says, “It’s given me access [to global beef and genetics trade] that might not have existed otherwise.”

As examples, he has been able to get permission for individual imports – and in at least one case change policy for cattle trade. His ultimate hope is that bringing beef cattle and knowledge to these countries will bolster their future food and agriculture production efforts. Seitz says he would like to see “cattle operations in Asia take off and expand.”

Back at home in Wyoming, Seitz has also had a small breakthrough in gaining credibility for Wagyu cattle among neighboring ranchers. He recently had another nearby rancher call to inquire about a Wagyu bull.  end mark

Kindra Gordon is a freelancer writer based in South Dakota.

This originally appeared in the Wagyu World.

PHOTOS
PHOTO 1: Ample grass in China’s Mongolia region indicate its potential for producing beef cattle. Wyoming’s Tom Seitz is working with the region’s beef producers to A.I. cows to Wagyu sires to produce higher-quality beef.

PHOTO 2: Tom Seitz’s teenage daughter Madeleine accompanied him to China this summer to assist in A.I.’ing cows to Wagyu genetics. One of the Mongolian farmers assists her chuteside. Photos provided by Tom Seitz.

Cultural differences

As he works with Chinese farmers to help them establish Wagyu beef herds, Tom Seitz notes there are some cultural differences to overcome.

One of those is the practice of weaning. He notes that Mongolian farmers typically don’t wean their calves – so an animal may be 2 years old before the calf is off the cow. Seitz explains, “Their current focus is on producing a heavier calf; what they don’t realize is that they could have produced two calves in that amount of time.”

Another difference: Most people in Asia believe a bovine should not be slaughtered until it’s given several years of work. “This is why a lot of their domestic beef is tough,” Seitz explains. He adds, “Steak is largely unheard of in China. I took some very expensive steak over once, and the chef chopped it up into small pieces because that is how they eat their meat.”

Seitz does credit the Chinese with developing their infrastructure to accommodate their growing livestock and food industry. He reports that they’ve invested in slaughter and storage facilities, and their supermarket distribution is expanding rapidly.

However, one challenge has been the refrigeration trucks and drivers. He reports some instances where the drivers will turn off the reefer to save fuel – not realizing that this spoils the cargo.

All total, Seitz says he is trying to share information and demonstrate various management styles such as vaccinations and weaning practices to help improve their beef production efforts.

As in the U.S., Chinese farmers don’t want to be the first one to make a change, he reports. “There is a lot of interest in the Wagyu genetics, but no one wants to be first to make a switch to raising this ‘different’ kind of cattle – so they do a lot of watching,” Seitz says.

Additionally, Seitz often has an “audience” when he is working with Chinese farmers. He explains, “When I’m over there, I’m the American professor. When we are putting embryos in or A.I.’ing cattle, people come to watch. That’s been interesting. Chinese farmers get very little support from the government and academia there – there is no ag extension system like here in the U.S.”

He adds that the Chinese don’t even dream of encouraging their kids to grow up to be a farmer or an ag scientist because it is a vocation that has received relatively little support and acknowledgement in the country, and the opportunity for university study isn’t readily available.

As a result, a large gap exists between agriculture specialists at universities and farmers. And if the country wants to move toward producing more of their food domestically, Seitz notes that is an obstacle the Chinese will need to address for the future.

Regarding his view of Asia’s beef industry, Seitz says “I see an open door for cattle imports for a while. But eventually, I think it will close again because many of these Asian countries ultimately would like to raise their own domestic beef supply. I’m not sure that is entirely possible [because of their large populations], but that is what they would prefer.”  end mark

 

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