Talking to the Experts

(The Day of Reckoning:Finding Japan's Top Matsusaka Cow No.4) Between them an Incredible Eight Winners The Beef-Fattening Legends Mikichi Kubo and Jiro Tochigi
By JQR editorial department
Photos/ Shingo Shiokawa
December 20, 2016

Mr. Kubo says that whenever he has a moment he brushes his cows, and that spending time with them is his greatest pleasure.

Mr. Mikichi Kubo
At 86 years old, Fukano's oldest working feedlot farmer. Five-time winner of the Matsusaka Beef Cattle Competition

Sleeping Alongside Sick Cows out of Sheer Worry

JQR: Is there a trick to choosing the right calves?

Mikichi Kubo: You need a soft one, that is, one with a soft hide. A calf with rough skin won't grow up to be a very good specimen.

J: So there's already a difference, right from the start?

Kubo: Body shape is important too. The line of the animal's back, how it stands. If it has a curved spine, it won't put on weight. And it has to have straight hocks. That's the kind of calf I choose. When the calf first arrives, I give it extra feed to build up a large belly. If you don't do this it won't last three years. Premium Matsusaka cattle have to be kept for 900 days, so first I concentrate on growing its stomach.

J: What kind of fodder do you use?

Kubo: Nothing very tasty, I'm afraid. Straw, grass, that sort of thing.

J: Do you boil the straw?

Kubo: I used to, but not anymore. Everyone has a different approach to feeding their animals. Some cut their straw long. Cut it short, and they eat more.

J: So whether you boil the straw or not, they grow the same?

Kubo: It makes no difference at all. Once they've grown I steam wheat and corn and feed it to them as flakes.

J: Is there a particular way to raise a prizewinning cow?

Kubo: There’s no real method that I know of. Your best chance is to strike a beast with a healthy appetite. Buy a cow with a strong body. One that will eat an average of two kilograms of feed consistently for three years is good. Although if they stop eating, you're in trouble.

J: If a cow does go off its food, what do you do?

Kubo: Start by giving her vitamins, as a vitamin deficiency is the likely cause.

J: Do you give them beer?

Kubo: Beer will stimulate their appetite. If they're eating some fodder, I don't give them beer.

J: Do you enjoy raising cattle?

Kubo: I do, actually, I like the early starts. Any chance I get, I take a cow out of the shed to somewhere warm and brush her coat. When they fatten up beautifully, it's wonderful. If they leave some of their feed uneaten, I fret over why they didn't eat it.

J: It must be great to have one of your cattle win first place in the competition. Do you feel a special affection for the cow after that?

Kubo: I suppose it does add something special to the daily routine. They are living things, after all. If you win the competition, looking after the animal for the month or so to about December 20 is pretty stressful. You can't not feed them, and if you overfeed them and they get sick, you've failed. It's a real shame when that happens.

J: They seem so big and sturdy though.

Kubo: They're actually quite delicate. Move them to a different shed, for instance, and they often go off their food.

J: You've been fattening beef cattle for a long time now. Any thoughts looking back on it all?

Kubo: I've been doing this for over 70 years, since I was about twelve. If I didn’t enjoy it I wouldn't be able to get up that early every day. If they're eating in the morning, I can relax; if they leave some, I start to worry. I've even put down a straw mat and slept alongside sick cows. I think I've only managed to come this far because I love it so much.

Mr. Jiro Tochigi
Feedlot farmer in Fukano, 83 years old. Three-time winner of the Matsusaka Beef Cattle Competition.

Carefully Raising a Manageable Number of Outstanding specimens

JQR: What would be your ideal calf?

Jiro Tochigi: One with a nice straight back, sleek appearance, and smooth, tidy legs.

J: So it comes down to skeletal structure and style, then.

Tochigi: And belly. A calf with a big belly will be a good eater.

J: Have you ever made a mistake when buying calves?

Tochigi: Every time I buy a calf I think this is the one, but several times I've lost them at about 700 days. They tend to stop eating once they get a bit of fat on their bellies.

J: How do you get a calf that's stopped eating to start again?

Tochigi: Force-feeding is risky. At times like that I might make her drink some beer and just wait for her to recover. Last year I once again had what I thought was a well-built cow that was up to 670 kg by September, so imagined I might be on to a winner, but she suddenly stopped eating and lost weight.

J: And thus any chance of winning the competition?

Tochigi: That's right. She never regained her appetite, and I decided there was no point even entering the heats on October 24, so unfortunately I ended up selling her. On weighing, she was found to have dropped to 620kg. She lost a whole 50 kg in just a month. Luckily the quality of the meat was good, and a Tokyo department store bought her.

J: Raising them for so long certainly has its risks, then.

Tochigi: I give cattle from Hyogo five kilograms of fodder a day, in two 2.5kg lots. For premium Matsusaka beef I have to raise a Hyogo heifer for 900 days. On the other hand, cattle from Kyushu eat 10-12 kg a day, and can reach 750 kg in 20 months.

J: So cattle grow differently depending on where they are from and their gender. Is there any special kind of feed?

Tochigi: The feed is the same everywhere, I imagine. Imported, with just the straw grown here in Japan. Wheat accounts for the largest share of the imported feed.

J: Any other worries apart from the cattle not eating?

Tochigi: When things get hot in summer. It's the time of year that hits cattle the hardest. Lots of flies too. I clean out the shed once a day without fail to prevent any gas buildup. Apart from that, sickness. You can tell a cow has a fever by looking at its face.

J: Cattle are large beasts, which makes some people a little scared to approach them.

Tochigi: They're big, yes, but also sensitive. When calves first come here they're frightened, but they get used to us after three months or so. They're like dogs: they’ll follow you around everywhere. Very sweet animals actually.

J: Matsusaka cattle are rated very highly: what's your view on that?

Tochigi: I don't think we can afford to put on airs simply because we produce a luxury brand, so to speak. Other prefectures are putting in the hard graft right now with the aim of catching up to Matsusaka, or even outpacing us.

J: If you were to raise as many cattle as you could care for, how many would you have?

Tochigi: Up to about 30 head would be the limit for me. You have to have someone who knows the cattle going round checking on them all every day. I know of a farm that had 200, but if you're going to go that big, personally I think you'd be better to reduce the number to 150, and raise fewer cattle better.

Mr. Tochigi heads out for a walk with one of his cows. Keeping the cowshed clean to minimize stress for the animals is a daily chore.

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