As more people discover the advantages of Wagyu for producing high quality beef, a growing number of cattle breeders are raising this unique breed. Some people who have never raised cattle before are also giving it a try.
Jerry Reeves, retired from the Animal Science Department at Washington State University, was one of the first Americans to become familiar with this breed. Today he runs a large herd of black Wagyu that winter along the Snake River in Washington and summer in the Idaho mountains.
Reeves was part of a team sent by WSU to Japan in 1989, to assess the Japanese beef industry. “We knew the Japanese were going to take quotas off imported meat 1991, so the university sent us over there to figure out how our state could capitalize on sending meat to Japan. Here on the West Coast we are closer to Japan than beef producers in the Midwest. Any advantage we might have over the corn-fed beef in the Midwest would be helpful,” he explained.
“We hadn’t seen Wagyu before, and when we saw their carcasses we realized the Japanese beef was superior to ours. We thought the best way to attract Japanese buyers would be to bring some of those genetics to the U.S. to produce high-quality carcasses. Our competition for this export market would be Australia, and if we could send a better quality meat into Japan we’d have more of the market,” said Reeves.
“The Japanese government let us bring some Wagyu into the U.S. At that time, my wife and I had Angus and Simmental and decided to try Wagyu,” he said.
They have some unique traits that are different from American beef cattle, and the first imported breed that wasn’t brought in with a goal of trying to make our cattle bigger. “They are smaller than our typical beef cow; we were trying to increase quality rather than growth and production traits,” said Reeves.
The first Wagyu breeding program in the U.S. was focused on producing bulls that could be bred to cattle here (especially Angus) to produce crossbreds for the Japanese market.
“For a while all the half-blood Wagyu meat produced was exported to Japan. The best thing that happened to our market was Mad Cow Disease. We couldn’t export meat to Japan; it all had to go into our restaurants. Americans were finally able to try Wagyu. They got it pretty cheap that first year because cattle feeders needed to find a home for the meat,” explained Reeves.
After the American people tried it, they wanted more. Now there’s a bigger market for this meat in the U.S. than in Japan. Introduction to Wagyu started the evolution of a new concept in beef production in the U.S.
“It is a superior product, more highly marbled, with more tenderness and flavor. These cattle don’t look like our cows and cattlemen have to learn about these unique animals. Now many large ranches in the Western U.S. breed their heifers to Wagyu bulls for ease of calving, and receive a premium for the calves.”
A lot to offer
“Wagyu carcasses are superior to what we see in other cattle,” said Reeves. Some ranchers are producing half-blood animals as a terminal cross for beef.
Bob Estrin, Lone Mountain Ranch near Golden, New Mexico, feels this breed has moved from a small niche industry to a nationally recognized and thriving enterprise. Calves are small at birth, and this factor, coupled with premiums at market, is attractive to many ranchers. Wagyu-sired calves often bring more money per pound than other calves when they enter the feedlot.
“They weigh in a little lighter, but if the heifer didn’t have calving problems this is a plus,” said Reeves. The producer generally has a higher percent calf crop and fewer losses. A heifer experiencing an easy birth has quicker recovery, and a better chance to rebreed on time.
“We work with some producers who breed 100 to 700 heifers a year. They can’t afford calving problems,” said Reeves. Using Wagyu bulls on heifers eliminates risk.
Importance of marketing
Estrin says these cattle don’t fit the market for commercial beef cattle. You can’t just take Wagyu to a sale barn. “Wagyu cattle look so different that buyers of commercial cattle who are unfamiliar with this breed won’t give top dollar for them. Yet marketed properly, Wagyu bring substantial premiums,” he said.
There are many factors to consider, according to Charles Gaskins, a Washington cattle breeder/animal scientist retired from the faculty at WSU. “Lighter calves bring more money per pound, and if you get a premium because of higher carcass quality, and have easy calving and better breed-back on the heifers, it’s a win-win,” he said.
“The people who can take advantage of these benefits are producers with enough cattle to sell by the truck load. If you only have 6 or 8 calves, the advantage isn’t that great unless you figure out a way to market them—through a co-op or direct to consumers or to the restaurant market,” said Gaskins.
“Most people want to maximize marbling. This may or may not be a good thing, depending on your market. These cattle are fed at a relatively slow rate in the feedlot, eating less, finishing slower than typical beef animals and eating a lot less grain. A daily gain of about 2 pounds is standard for cattle that will be 1600-1800 pounds final weight. Because of lower energy requirements, their lower rate of gain is not detrimental. In conventional cattle feeding, people try to maximize rate of gain in the feedlot but in this case you don’t need to,” Gaskins explained.
“Anyone who wants to cross Wagyu with other breeds to improve meat quality needs to think it through, regarding a market plan. Some of my colleagues say it won’t work, because you lose on the growth side. Others think this is the way we need to go in the future—incorporate Wagyu into other breeds to improve meat quality,” he said.
Know the difference
It is important to understand the difference between a fullblood and a purebred. Some also feel it is important for consumers to know whether the product they are eating is 100% Wagyu or a percentage animal. “The consumer wants higher quality in terms of marbling and is entitled to accurate labeling,” Estrin said. Some half-Wagyu beef is passed off as Wagyu, and even though it is very good eating, it is not as highly marbled.
In most breeds, a “purebred” is an animal that is 100%, whereas a 100% Wagyu is referred to as a “fullblood”. A purebred Wagyu is any animal having 15/16ths or greater Wagyu blood (93.75% or higher), requiring at least 4 generations of crossing with fullblood genetics. A fullblood Wagyu, to be registered, must be DNA-tested, verifying that it is the offspring of a fullblood sire and fullblood dam, tracing the ancestry back to original Japanese lineage.