Kildare man Oliver O’Hanlon tried a number of farming enterprises over the years before settling on Wagyu beef, which has been ‘a licence to print money’
Wagyu, the intensely marbled beef-producing breed that originated in Japan, can now be found grazing around Silliot Hill in Kilcullen, Co Kildare.
Under the watchful eye of Oliver O’Hanlon, the Ohanasaki Wagyu herd has made its presence felt — with interest in these animals growing rapidly.
The word ‘Wagyu’ itself directly translates to ‘Japanese beef’, with ‘wa’ meaning ‘Japanese’ and ‘gyu’ meaning ‘beef’.
The breed has a predisposition to deposit fat in the form of marbling, which in turn gives a tender and savoury meat.
It’s this characteristic that has made these animals popular around the globe, with their beef now highly sought after by high-end restaurateurs in Ireland.
It hasn’t always been beef on the O’Hanlons’ 110ac home farm, though. Up until 1997, Oliver milked a herd of Friesian and then Montbeliarde cows alongside his father, Greg.
“We were the absolute first to bring Montbeliardes into the country, in September 1992,” Oliver tells the Farming Independent.
“I flew over to Paris for 420 Irish pounds and made my way down to the Swiss border. I came home with a reasonable load of bulls and heifers, and built up from there.”
The O’Hanlons decided to switch to keeping suckler cows when the price of milk quota was high and beef farming became an attractive option.
“We kept mainly Belgian Blues amongst other continental breeds. I had a lot of success with them, but I started thinking more about the quality rather than the quantity of beef I was producing,” Oliver continues.
“We peaked at 29 sections in one year with the Blues, so I also wanted to breed a cow that was low-maintenance and easy-calving. It was with this in mind that I came upon Wagyu cattle.
“The Montbeliardes and the Blues had been two great successes, which gave me the confidence to go on and try something brand new.”
Oliver imported 60 full-blood Wagyu embryos from Australia for €51,000, and from here he started his new herd.
“Any business is only one idea away from success and one idea away from bankruptcy.
“It was a big chance to buy the embryos, and I put a lot of trust in the Australians. Luckily, it paid off, as I had a lot of experience built up in embryo transfer with the Blues,” Oliver says.
“I knew the level of attention to detail that would be required when observing heats in recipients. For the couple of days that you are dealing with embryo transfer, you have to keep your head down and focus on the task at hand.
“We had our first full-blood Wagyu calves on the ground in 2008. Since then, Wagyu has been a licence to print money.
“I chose Wagyu because it was the only option for me to remain a suckler farmer and pay my bills. I’ve gotten big cheques for small Wagyu animals and small cheques for big continentals.”
Oliver suggests that any cow not in calf to Wagyu is an opportunity lost, with his in-calf heifers making an average of €8,000.
“We as farmers need to identify a demand, supply a product which meets this demand and, in turn, work at a profit. It’s simple economics,” Oliver says.
“No bank manager ever asked a farmer what grade, breed or age the animal was as they lodged the cheque. Why whinge about factory quotes when all you have to do is change your bull?
“Unfortunately, in our current food system, one producer doesn’t have any regard for the person next down the line. There’s no real regard for the marbling of the meat in the factory, for example.
“We need to treat the beef system like a relay race. Each producer should want to pass on as good a baton as they receive.”
Oliver claims to be the first registered Wagyu breeder in Ireland and now runs a herd of 25 full-blood cows along with crossbred recipients.
The majority of progeny produced leave the farm as breeding stock. Bulls that are not up to spec are made into steers and beefed from there. Oliver also sells AI straws through Progressive Genetics, with 11,000 sold in 2021.
Semen from Ohanasaki Brilliant has been sold and accredited for export and is widely used on the continent.
“This year so far, I’ve had 30 full-blood Wagyu calves born on the farm and there’s 10 still to go. I also sold 100 embryos in 2021. We usually superovulate three of the best cows each year,” says Oliver.
“I normally superovulate the cows during the summer when the sun is on our backs. It makes everything easier. There’s less pressure, too, with long days.
“A lot of embryo-transfer lads tell me they are flat out around Christmastime. I can’t understand why so many choose to do it under those miserable conditions.
“I sell embryos in batches of five for €5,000. I also recently sold five bulls to farmers in Wales. We received €20,000 for two of the bulls and the pair have gone on to serve 75 Angus heifers.
“Cattle are live-exported to the UK by Workman Livestock Transport. We usually process a Wagyu bullock or heifer for ourselves through a butcher in Mountrath every year.
“When I’m selecting a good animal for breeding, it’s their EBV and their looks that come into play. The computer is a good guide, but you have to have the right eye in your head to know a good one just by the look. It’s like dating apps — a computer can only do so much, but it has to work in the real world too.”
Oliver is confident about the future of the breed and has big ambitions for his herd in the near future.
“I started walking the cows in for milking when I was six years old, so it’s one of my early memories, and I do miss having the Friesian cows around,” he says.
“Wagyu breeding is the future, though, and it suits the older, part-time and maybe even lazy farmer. There’s a lot less work involved and you’re making a lot more money at it too.
“It’s a race to breed the best bull — that’s the game I want to get into in the near future. It’s like breeding a super stallion: once you get to that level, you have it made.
“I have dealt with scepticism from others in the past, but, as the saying goes, ‘Those that are enlightened before the others are condemned to pursue that light in spite of the others.’ It’s imagination that changes the world, not intelligence.
“Demand for Wagyu beef, even for crossbred cattle here, is growing. A butcher in Dublin recently paid a friend of mine €142/kg for ribeye cuts.”
In his spare time, Oliver is an avid writer. In 2013, he published a book Soul Mates from Heaven. The love story is based mostly in Co Kildare and features a character who breeds Wagyu.
Oliver O’Hanlon’s Ohanasaki Wagyu herd is registered with the Australian Wagyu Association so that pedigrees can be traced back to Japan. It’s the largest of the Wagyu breed associations outside of Japan.
Oliver’s cattle are made up of many strains of Wagyu. “The herd has a nice balance between milk from Fukutsuru and marbling from Iohana 2 and Michifuku in the Lake Wagyu foundation embryos, which were imported to Ireland,” he says.
“The Kedaka strain generally gives size. Like with all cattle, if you follow any one trait too closely, you’ll go down a burrow.
“Tajima will give you a lot of marbling but a smaller carcass, so it’s all about striking the right balance between the strains and getting a nice all-rounder.
“For new breeders of Wagyu, and those considering importing cattle into Ireland, it is so important to take a close look for genetic defects on the animal’s pedigree cert,” Oliver advises.
“A lot of breeders have been badly stung in the past, breeding animals with a lot of genetic defects and, unfortunately, a lot of these animals have made their way across Europe.
“The Australian Wagyu Association got the resources in place and all animals now are gene-tested to show if they are free from these defects or not. I was blessed that the embryos I brought in initially were all clean and I’ve been breeding with clean bulls ever since.
“Other breed societies, you wouldn’t hear much talk about genetic defects — it’s something that is ignored, which isn’t the right approach.
“It takes courage to admit there’s an issue within a breed, and the Australians took control of the situation, which will be for the benefit of everyone in the long run. Others would have buried their heads in the sand.”