Some virtues of the Wagyu breed are undisputed by a pair of Kansas State University beef experts, but as in many subjects, there is always gray area to consider.
“It’s a breed that’s got a lot of strong points, like its ability to marble,” said K.C. Olson, a K-State beef cattle researcher.
K-State meat scientist Travis O’Quinn concurs.
“They have a greater ability to lay down a high degree of marbling,” he said, which is why Wagyu beef ranks high in tenderness and juiciness.
A lot of Wagyu cattle are a result of breed-up programs that include mostly crossing with Angus beef to get those genetics in the U.S., O’Quinn said.
“It’s a breed with genetic capabilities, but in the Japanese production system, the animals are a lot older and they’re fed special diets to allow for the deposition of greater marbling content,” O’Quinn said.
While American Wagyu cattle are still known for taste and marbling, he said, “they won’t reach the extreme levels of marbling like they do in Japan, due to the different feeding systems.”
O’Quinn doesn’t dispute that the Wagyu fat is a better fat, but that’s true for most breeds.
Most grain-fed beef fat doesn’t impact cholesterol levels, O’Quinn said, and Wagyu cattle “are not exclusive in that area.”
The Japanese cattle are far from perfect, though.
“The breed has some weak points. Muscling would be chief of those,” Olson said. “We’re still in the red-meat yield business, and the Wagyu breed struggles a little bit in that regard.”
Regardless of breed, the ribeye area is an issue, he said, but it’s generally smaller with Wagyu cattle.
“We sell middle meats, the industry term for the ribeye roll, all over the world,” Olson said, “but the biggest portions of the carcass are the end meats, the chuck and the round. We don’t make many steaks out of end meats, but they do have tremendous utility as a consumer product, and red-meat yield per animal is one of the economic drivers of success in the feedlot and at the packing plant.”
Cross-breeding Angus with a “lighter muscled, better-marbled breed like Wagyu will probably result in an animal with intermediate physical stature, intermediate carcass weight and intermediate muscling and marbling,” he said. “You can make those middle meats more valuable, while still allowing competitive carcass weights.”
It still comes down to the size of the bull, said Mike Kerby, vice president of the American Wagyu Association, and there are Wagyu bulls that can compete in size with other breeds.
“It all depends on what you’re breeding for,” he said. “You might be going for milk, for calving ease, for ribeye size, or for growth. You’re looking for that balanced animal. That’s the holy grail. In reality, that’s what every breeder is looking for.”