Breeding and rearing Wagyu cross store cattle from the dairy herd is adding a third dimension to their business for the Swainson family, How End, Thursby, Carlisle.

The family farms 700 acres across two farms, milking 350 year-round calving cows, with a further 450 head of youngstock.

“We’re pretty happy with the number of cows we run, which are producing 3.5m litres of milk for sale,” said John Swainson, the third generation of the family to farm at How End since 1942.

Read more: Wagyu beef: Warrendale has a plan to maintain standards

John (Craig) farms with his wife, Anne, parents, John and Margaret and uncle, Gordon. Son Johnny (Patrick) studied agriculture and business management at Harper Adams University College and, with the Covid-19 restrictions stopping his plans to travel, he has come home to work.

“We sell cows privately and at a couple of production sales at Wigton mart every year. There seems to be a good demand for cross-bred cows with buyers returning and specifically asking for them.

“We have always had a percentage of the bottom end of the herd in calf to the beef bull and using sexed semen and Wagyu pretty well means that every calf born has a market. This fits with our milk buyer, Arla and its 'every calf has a value' campaign.

Read more: Wagyu beef: Feeding cattle fits the Dickinsons' system

“The system is a win for the consumer as it addresses the problem of unwanted dairy bull calves; a win for us as each calf has a viable future; and a win for Warrendale Wagyu as it can grow its business,” added John.

Bulling heifers get two services with sexed semen and are then run with a Wagyu stock bull, which replaced the Holstein sweeper bull formerly used.

The milk cows are inseminated with high genomic sexed Holstein semen up to 100 days in milk, then either sexed Norwegian Red, or Wagyu up to 150 days – after which only the Wagyu is used. This way they hope to get our replacement heifer from our most fertile cows.

“We are using several different Wagyu bulls recommended by Warrendale Wagyu and supplied by Genus. They are easy calving and appear to be above average fertility,” said John.

All calves are reared in an airy, new, purpose-built unit on either an automatic calf feeder, installed 2½ years ago, which takes 100 calves, or in groups of six on a milk bar feeder.

Read more: Stability a key factor for the Grahams

“Since we built the new calf housing and installed the automatic feeders, the whole rearing system has improved – we have improved our colostrum management and try to give all the calves a good start in their first three months,” said John. “The Wagyu calves are aggressive drinkers and they thrive and do well on either system.”

"Calves are weaned at 10 weeks when, along with the dairy heifers, they go onto a diet of ad lib 16% blend and hay. This keeps them growing and well fleshed. We’re paid on weight for the Wagyu, so it makes sense to do them well."

In the winter the majority of the young stock are housed at the 240-acre Fisher Gill Farm, Aikton, a former dairy farm four miles away, which was purchased two years ago.

The Wagyu calves have at least one summer at grass when they are supplemented with 1.5kg a day/head of the 16% blend.

Johnny, who runs his own flock of Kerry Hill sheep, said: “We are paid a fixed price on weight based on a matrix system which takes market volatility out of the system. Initially, the Wagyu premium was substantial although as beef prices have increased in the last year that premium has reduced.

"However, the fixed pricing of the Warrendale system allows us to plan knowing what the price will be when we choose to sell cattle which is not something we’ve been used to as farmers in the past."

John added: “Johnny and I both like working among livestock. The Wagyu are good to work with and have a very good temperament. There are more positives than negatives with the system.

“Currently, we have 160 head of Wagyu on the farm, the most we have had. Of these, 120 have just been TB tested before they being sold on to finishers.

“Going forward we’d like to increase our housing to accommodate the Wagyu through to finishing. The eating quality of the Wagyu beef is greatly affected by the level of marbling in the meat.

"There appears to be particular genetics, feed types and feeding systems that can influence that marbling so it would be interesting to work with Warrendale to produce the best animal possible,” added John.

The farm grows more than 200 acres of cereals, with 80 acres of winter wheat whole cropped for the dairy cows and the remaining winter and spring barley combined.

Maize was grown up until five years ago but taken out of the rotation when weed control, growing costs and damage to soil structure at harvest made whole crop a more attractive option.

The Swainsons have been involved in Countryside Stewardship schemes for 30 years and currently have 'Mid Tier' schemes running on both farms, which involved creating a large pond, planting over 100 broadleaved trees in hedgerows, planting 15 acres of wild bird seed, roofing over three silage pits and erecting several miles of sheep netting to protect hedgerows.