Held only once every five years, the Zenkyo Wagyu Cattle and Carcase Show in Japan is a unique experience in terms of sight, sound, taste and smell.
A visit to Zenkyo on Sunday was the perfect culmination of the Australian Wagyu Association’s 2022 Japan Wagyu Tour, held over the past fortnight. Thirty-seven tour participants from all parts of Australia as well as the United States and Brazil took part in the tour.
Locally described as the “Wagyu Cattle Olympics,” this colorful five-day event is the largest gathering of Wagyu cattle anywhere in the world. Held in the far south near Kagoshima, this year’s Zenkyo was the twelfth held since the event began in 1966, each in different parts of the country.
More than 400,000 people visited the previous Zenkyo held in 2017, and expectations this year were closer to 500,000, given Japanese people’s appetite for travel since COVID restrictions began to ease.
Cattle judging process
Classes for bulls and females of different ages included single cattle and groups of three, including mother progeny groups judging grandmother, mother and daughter.
A team of six stud cattle judges included university professors of animal physiology, animal geneticists and staff from the government’s agriculture department, the tour group was told.
Subtle differences have been observed between cattle from different parts of the country – some exhibiting classic Tajima characteristics with lighter bone and smaller bone – a true “dairy type” that produces profuse marbling – right down to animals at larger frame from areas like Hokkaido.
There were even a few Red Wagyu scattered among the classes, although they didn’t seem to catch the judges’ attention.
Each class took around an hour to judge, with cattle being assessed for “breed improvement” based on profile, conformation, foot and leg structure, temperament and walking ability. Judging appeared to be entirely based on phenotype, with no reference to performance data.
Each of the Japanese prefectures participating in this year’s Zenkyo brought their own rowdy cheering squad, dressed in local colors and carrying banners and flags to support each other during judging.
Crowds eager to see the event after Japan’s COVID problems began to ease over the past few months lined up for up to two hours to get a seat in the main judges’ stadium – a huge structure temporary set up specifically for the event with a capacity of around 6,000.
Around 440 head of cattle took part in the 2022 Zenkyo event, representing 41 of Japan’s 47 prefectures – from the snow-swept island of Hokkaido in the deep north to the semi-tropical region of Oita in the far south. Separate competitions were held for student-led animals and a separate meat judging competition, involving 166 carcasses, judged for abundance and fineness of marbling, carcass yield and fat cover at the using the Meat Image Japan digital camera (see previous story), as well as fatty acid composition. .
For the group of Australian cattle visiting the event this week, there was a lot to learn.
Trying to find local parallels, Zenkyo is like a combination of Royal Show beef cattle judging, Aquip or Primex farm equipment and a field day of goods, and Hobart Food Festival – all rolled into one.
In some ways, Zenkyo was unlike any stud judging competition Australia had ever seen. In other respects, the similarities were great. The cattlemen themselves obviously had a great sense of camaraderie and good-natured fun – just as they do in Australia – but took their jobs very seriously when they entered the arena of judges. You could cut the tension in the air during judging time with a finely crafted Japanese knife.
One point many of the Australian contingent remarked on was how incredibly placid each animal in the ring was.
Wagyu cattle in Australia have a reputation for having good temperaments, but these Japanese show cattle were on another level. Hundreds of generations of imprinting with an extremely close bond between animals and their masters has clearly had an effect.
Next to the cattle judging ring was a large trade show with stalls selling everything from animal genetics and AI equipment to animal health products, handling equipment and cattle dehorning (all Fullblood Wagyu are HH horned), nutrition, stud grooming equipment and electric fencing.
Japan Agriculture has mounted a large exhibit, covering everything from breeding, genetics, nutrition, animal health and welfare, genetics and beef exports.
The myriad of eateries celebrated Wagyu beef in many forms, from barbecue to beef noodles and even Wagyu-flavored fries.
COVID restrictions prevented the public from viewing this year’s carcass competition, which was held at a separate venue in Chiran, Minamikyushu City. The highest price paid at this year’s carcass auction was 110,000 yen/kg (equivalent to approximately A$1,200/kg carcass weight), which on a 550 kg carcass , represents a price of approximately 665,500 Australian dollars. There may have been a charitable donation element involved in this, Beef Central was told.
For comparison, typical Fullblood Wagyu A5 carcasses in Japan fetch between $15,000 and $18,000.
The big winners of this year’s Zenkyo event were the “heavy” prefectures of Kagoshima and Hokkaido, which will host the next event in five years, in 2027.
The winner of the Prime Minister’s Award for Overall Results was Miyazaki Prefecture, while Kagoshima won the coveted Breeding Bull Championship.
There is no meaningful prize money attached to the competition, but the stakes for prestige and glory are high. Several locals said beef from the more prosperous prefectures would increase in value after the results of the judgment were released, as demand across the country for the best beef increased. All quality Wagyu beef sold in Japan bears its prefecture of origin.
The Australian contingent was warmly welcomed at the event, with many locals clearly curious about why we were there and about Wagyu beef production in Australia.
Photos from Zenkyo’s colorful event below. Click on images to enlarge.