Beside me is Will Prichard, who is the third generation of his family to farm this land on the west coast of Wales. Coming towards us in response to Will’s call, gently trotting across the grass, are the cattle that Will hopes will keep the Prichard family on this land for decades to come.
When Will’s grandfather moved here in the mid-Forties it was a mixed farm rearing beef, sheep and dairy animals. Will’s father was born here in 1947, during one of the coldest winters in living memory, and when he took over the farm he decided to concentrate on dairy — producing milk and rearing animals to sell to other dairy farmers.
Yet the cattle that have crowded around us now are not dairy cows. Nor, to my admittedly inexpert eye, do they look like beef cattle either. They are small, fine-boned animals, glossy black, and they look to me like youngsters, perhaps not a year old. “No, these are fully mature — three years old,” Will laughed. “They are beef cattle, but quite different from the beef cattle more commonly raised in this country. When my 89-year-old neighbour saw them for the first time he said ‘they look awful’, but with these cattle you have to look beyond their shape and concentrate on the eating quality of the meat.”
What I’m looking at is a Japanese breed of cattle called Wagyu. I have heard of Wagyu beef and the stories — not true, it turns out — that the cattle are fed beer and given regular massages to make the meat they produce extra special, but what is a herd of them doing here, on a dairy farm in Wales? Will tells me it all started when he had dinner with childhood friend Rob Cumine. “After the best steak I had ever eaten and three bottles of malbec, I didn’t need much more persuading.”
It has been well documented that the dairy industry is in crisis, with thousands of farms across the country forced out of business by falling milk prices and bovine TB. Up until 2011, Will had continued his father’s dairy business and the family had an excellent reputation for rearing good-quality dairy animals, but, he told me “the scourge of bovine TB meant that cattle movements between farms became more and more difficult. We are a resilient bunch but many farmers locally have suffered huge financial losses over the past two years. So we decided to replace our dairy animal sales with beef animal sales. We started by rearing Hereford cattle, but that dinner with Rob changed everything.”
Wagyu cattle bred both in the UK and abroad are traditionally reared indoors and fed an intensive grain-based diet. Will wanted to raise his Japanese cattle the way his family had always reared cattle, on a resource Pembrokeshire is rarely short of — grass. And that was the big unknown.
“Keeping cattle is quite simple, really. They are generally very happy as long as you provide them with food, water, space and shelter. Our grazing fields provide ample space and feed, while our traditional high Pembrokeshire hedges do a great job of sheltering stock from both wind and sunshine and, as for water, Pembrokeshire has never been short of that! But what we wouldn’t know for four years is whether we could produce quality Wagyu meat by only feeding grass.”
We’re back at the farmhouse, in the kitchen with Will’s wife Alex, nursing steaming cups of coffee in Emma Bridgewater mugs. That year, 2011, turned out to be a momentous time for Will. Not only did he decide to raise an exotic breed of cattle in a way no one had ever attempted before, he also met Alex. “It was via the website Muddy Matches,” Alex confided. “I joined in January and I messaged Will in February. It took him three months to reply!”
They married in January 2015 and their daughter Florence was born in September, around the same time that the first Wagyu cattle Will had bred and reared on his farm were ready for slaughter. “Was he a bag of nerves?” I asked Alex. “I have never seen my husband a bag of nerves. But you could sense the huge levels of both apprehension and excitement surrounding this new venture. Would the Wagyu marble on grass was the question on everyone’s lips!”
It is this so-called marbling — the visible flecks of intramuscular monounsaturated fat (that’s the healthy sort) in the muscle — that accounts for Wagyu’s prized tenderness and flavour. “We rushed up to London with the meat to see various butchers and chefs, including head chef at MASH, Stuart Lerwill. To a man, they were all impressed with the marbling, flavour and succulence of our product. It was only then we realised we were onto something — grass-fed Wagyu was a reality.”
Now, they are stocked in seven of the nine Wholefoods stores in the UK, and supply local boutique hotels including LLys Meddyg in Newport, Pembrokeshire and Coast Restuarant, Coppet Sands, Saundersfoot. Will still has a dairy herd, and is still producing milk but the difference between selling his meat and selling milk, as the majority of farms do, to a cooperative for a set price — has given him food for thought.
“We are in complete control of how and where we sell our meat and the key for us is to engage with the end consumer as often as we can. People want to hear the story, want to know where their food comes from — they are really interested — and I think there is a huge opportunity for milk to be sold in a similar manner.”
And what about the next generation of Prichards, currently gurgling on Alex’s lap? “I would love Florence to chose to farm if it is right for her,” Alex smiles. “If she is as entrepreneurial as the three previous generations who knows what she’ll try!”