A $23 million, seven-year partnership between the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) and key players in New Zealand's premium grass-fed beef industry has wrapped up, with a Hawke's Bay company hailing a number of key successes.
The Marbled Grass-Fed Beef (MGFB) programme aimed to capitalise on a rapidly growing global appetite for high-quality, humanely raised, grass-fed beef.
This was achieved by developing an integrated value chain to connect farmers in New Zealand with consumers across the globe.
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Beginning in 2012, MPI contributed $11 million of funding to the programme, the balance coming from the three programme co-investors, Firstlight Foods, First Light Wagyu NZ Ltd and Brownrigg Agricultural Group.
The programme concluded late last year, and First Light's managing director, Gerard Hickey, says it's been a resounding success.
"From the outset, the vision was for our delicious New Zealand beef to be prized globally as the best grass-fed beef in the world," Hickey said.
"We've absolutely seen a seismic shift – particularly in the United States – in the perception of our product and its attributes. These include its marbling and associated eating quality, non-GMO and antibiotic free production, provenance, health benefits, and our ongoing focus on animal welfare."
The First Light grass-fed Wagyu beef programme offers an innovative, transparent supply chain model to New Zealand farmers looking for guaranteed return on their investment linked to quality and performance.
One feature of the MGFB programme was a focus on accessing the best Wagyu genetics to improve the elite sire selection process.
There has also been a reduction in the number of bobby calves as a result of the MGFB programme, which trialled using Wagyu genetics over dairy dams. This innovation delivers both an increased return to dairy farmers and consistent marble scores for the Wagyu dairy progeny.
"In 2019, dairy breeders were receiving approximately $200 per calf compared to $30 for a bobby calf," says Hickey.
"Working hand in hand with the dairy industry, we're able to ensure sufficient Wagyu dairy calves are sourced each year to meet forecasted market demand. Around 22,000 calves were born last year and we're expecting to grow that number to 30,000 in the future."
Another success of the programme was the development of a short, direct value chain to both local and offshore consumers. New Zealand, the US and the UK were selected to prototype a 'Go Direct' model, putting boots on the ground in these key markets and eliminating the margin usually taken by importers and distributors.
"Now, we are taking our learnings from the programme and applying them," says Hickey.
"We have a proven model for the supply of calves from the dairy industry, a proven model to go directly to the markets we operate in, and the knowledge and insights to produce marbled grass-fed beef year round."