Shorthorn Cows

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This breed in Japan has an extraordinary lifestyle in comparison to the blacks. Before going into detail about the Shorthorn, it would be useful to understand a little about their backgrounds and lifestyle. A comparison to their counterparts, the brown and black, they were crossbreed in the late 19th century between the imported dairy Shorthorn cattle and indigenous cattle in the northern parts of Honshu Island. Currently they are distributed mainly in the Tohoku and Hokkaido regions, with the former being devastated by the 2011.3.11 earthquake.
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Japanese Shorthorn cattle are unlike the fatty marbled meat of Japanese Blacks, and produce lean, flavorful red meat. The look of the shorthorn is a deep red-brown coat that is darker than the Japanese Brown. (see above)

The Shorthorn are superior to the Japanese Black for milk production, and overall growth rate but are not the preferred species for slaughter of the very fatty beef. This owes in large part to the genetic traits of Shorthorn cattle and to a grazing system. The “summer mountain, winter village,” is a system whereby the cattle spend the summers grazing on plentiful grass in vast mountaintop pastures and the winters feeding in stalls.

The mother cows spend the winter in stalls adjoined to the farm household. They mainly feed on rice straw produced in the village fields while the cattle were grazing in the mountains, dent corn silage (fodder made by lactic acid fermentation of feed corn, including the stems), and sun-dried grass.

Japanese Shorthorn cattle and their offspring are sent to graze on gently rolling pastures in the Kitakami Mountains around mid-May, when the cherry blossoms have fallen and trees begin to shoot tender new leaves. The pastures, located at altitudes of 800 to 1,000 meters, have areas of between 25 and 30 hectares. Each vast pasture plot accommodates 40 to 50 cows and a single bull, which is referred to as maki-ushi. Their calves are born in February and March.

As with yamaage, the cattle know that it is time for yamasage, or descent from the mountain. Headed by their leader, they gather of their own accord to be taken back down to the village.

After the cattle have returned to the village, it is time to sell the calves. Calf markets were once held in various locales as festive village-wide events, called oseri, but nowadays they are only held at the Iwate Central Livestock Market. Here, the breeders sell their calves to feedlots, where they will be fattened for meat.

Producers take the cattle up to the mountains by truck and conduct weight and hygiene checks before releasing them. This move is called yamaage, which literally means “to take up to the mountains.” The cattle spend the several months until October eating plenty of grass and exercising. The calves grow strong as they feed on their mothers’ milk.

The grazing season ends around mid-October, as the leaves set the mountains ablaze with red and yellow hues. By this time, night-time temperatures can fall below freezing.

The most important part of this pasturing period is mating. Whereas Japanese Black cattle are bred by artificial insemination, more than 90 percent of the Japanese Shorthorns of Iwaizumicho are born by natural mating. The lone maki-ushi set out to graze with 40 to 50 cows single-handedly takes on this task. These studs are selected for their excellent pedigree, but mating appears to be heavy work even for them, and they lose more than 100 kilograms by the end of the breeding season.

The majority of naturally conceived calves of Japanese Shorthorns are born between February and March, while temperatures drop below minus 10 degrees Celsius and freeze the fallen snow into ice. In the spring, the cows are once again set to graze in the mountains with their newborn.

Japanese Blacks, by contrast, are systematically bred year-round almost entirely by artificial insemination. The calves are weaned within 2 to 3 months after birth and are taken to market at around 10 months. There, male calves are put up for auction as beef cattle, while females are auctioned as either beef or breeding cattle. Beef cattle are fattened for roughly 20 months, during which they are generously fed a concentrated diet mainly consisting of hay and corn, before being shipped out to meat markets.

The grade of the shipped beef is determined by yield ratio and meat quality. Naturally, higher grades fetch higher prices. As the degree of marbling defines meat quality, Japanese Black cattle are efficiently fattened by restricting exercise.

Japanese Shorthorn calves born in the spring will have grown into fine young cows, having fed on plenty of milk and grass. They are taken down the mountains along with their mothers, now pregnant with the next generation of calves.

Japanese Shorthorn calves that have been sold off to feedlots spend the next 14 to 18 months being fattened to produce delicious beef, or “finished.” During the fattening period, they are fed locally supplied hay, silage, and rice straw, as well as concentrated fodder made from corn and other grains, to yield healthy red meat.

The concentrated fodder fed in Iwate Prefecture is made from non-genetically modified ingredients without adding hormones. Finally, the cattle are shipped to be processed and sold as beef at the age of 22 to 25 months. The healthy Japanese Shorthorn beef with its full-bodied flavor is produced in this manner.

Shorthorn cattle meat from Hokkaido (spencer roll, beef trimmed from the ribs, rolled, and used for short steaks or for a roast and strip loin will come in around the end of May.