For Drew Bryan, beef is money.
In addition to buying the best pork and beef to sell in his butcher shop in Hutchinson four years ago, Bryan decided to add a premium meat - crossbred Wagyu – to the selection.
That’s when Bryan, the owner of Jackson Meat, started raising crossbred Wagyu cattle. Now, he sells this meat in his store.
“When we bought the meat market, it gave us the opportunity to raise from farm to table meat,” Bryan said. “I always had a small herd (Angus). For me, it’s therapy.”
Wagyu are a breed of Japanese cattle, valued for their marbleized meat. Primarily black, the Wagyu are smaller than most American cattle. According to the American Wagyu Association, approximately 10% of Wagyu are a reddish color.
Full-blooded animals have a pedigree, like dogs, and must be registered with AWA. Each animal has a name, and their heritage can be traced back generations. AWA has more than 700 active members in every state but Alaska.
For crossbred stock, the rancher buys a Wagyu bull and lets him breed with cows. In Bryan’s case, Angus cows.
Other breeds traditionally used for crossbreeding are Holstein and Brahman. In the case of Jim Keller of Terra Cattle of Rose Hill, he is crossing his bull with both Charolais and Angus. Keller is new to this enterprise. He bought his bull two months ago.
“He’s very calm,” Keller said. “His father was a top sire in Japan.”
Like Bryan, Josh Homolka of Scorched Stone Farm in Holyrood, Kansas, near Ellsworth, started his Wagyu operation four years ago. He currently owns two full-blooded Wagyu bulls. Like Bryan, Homolka uses Angus cows for crossbreeding.
Through breeding, he is trying to get from 50% Wagyu to 75%.
“Ours are really docile and tame,” Homolka said. “They’re a good breed to be around.”
Some ranchers use artificial insemination, but many who raise Wagyu and crossbred in Kansas prefer to have a bull do the work. When the calves are born, they are half Wagyu and half other breed.
Consumers pay higher prices for both crossbred and full-blooded Wagyu beef. This is said to be because of its rich flavor and tenderness. Full-blooded Wagyu meat is touted by the industry to have less high oleic acid and lower saturated fat.
The calmer the animals remain, the better the meat.
“You’re going to get a better product with less stress on all animals,” Homolka said.
The marbling transforms the flavor, making the meat juicy.
“It’s a very high-quality product that no other breed offers,” said Robert Williams, executive director of AWA, which is headquartered in Post Falls, Idaho.
Other ranches in Kansas raise full-blooded cattle. Rachael and Bradon Wiens of Meade obtained their first cattle in 2015. One decade ago, brothers Jack and Jerry Cossette of Cossette Farms Gypsum Valley Wagyu near Salina brought their first cows into Kansas.
For Wiens, of Wiens Wagyu, who sells the Wagyu meat directly to the consumer, raising Wagyu is about purity. On his ranch just south of Dodge City, he has several herds of full-blooded Wagyu. Wien also has separate Angus herds.
The Cossettes, on the other hand have, a variety of both half and full-blooded Wagyu.
Vince Verland of Bar V Wagyu in Abilene fell in love with Wagyu five years ago. Since then he has expanded his business of selling animals and specimens.
“Our goal at Bar V Wagyu is to furnish the Wagyu world with the top full-blooded embryos genetically available,” Verland said. “Our business is selling embryos and semen.”
Wagyu, including crossbred Wagyu, head to the butcher after 30 months. This is just about double any other breed.
“They are not bred for efficiency,” Wiens said. “Just for good-tasting meat.”
Because of their slow growth, the input costs are double.
Full-blooded Wagyu cattle sell from $3,000 to $80,000, dependent on their pedigree and musculature. Verland said these animals normally sell from $3,000 - $15,000. Although some of his cows have brought in more than $50,000, with a bull hitting a high of $80,000.
And because both Wagyu and crossbred Wagyu must be pasture raised in a low-stress environment and stay in one location from birth to slaughter, the price per pound is substantially more than commercial meat.
“Wagyu can’t handle stress like other breeds. From birth to butcher, we put low stress on every aspect,” said Wiens. “They take more pampering. I can keep all of the variables from birth to slaughter the same.”
By raising crossbred cattle, the price of the meat comes down, but it is still higher than commercial meat, as the meat retains stronger marbling than other beef. Bryan’s customer-base for the meat continues to grow, as does Wiens’ and Homolka’s.
“We’re trying to give a high quality product at an affordable price,” Homolka said.
The market for selling full-blooded Wagyu, like the Cossettes’ and Verland’s do, continues to grow.
Raising the Animals
The Cossettes, like most of the other Wagyu ranchers, raise their own corn, sorghum, alfalfa and prairie hay. All of their Wagyu cattle at these ranches are naturally fed, without the use of growth hormones or antibiotics.
In order to thrive, the cattle expect clean water and shelter from the wind. At the Cossette ranch, they have a newly built barn. The Wiens’ hung up street sweepers so the animals can massage their backs. Bryan has a wind shelter.
“If you look at the state of rural America, I wouldn’t say it’s prospering,” Homolka said. “This is a niche market. Maybe we could sell a higher quality product for a little bit more money.”