Promoters of a Japanese cattle breed that’s been part of the American beef market for decades will launch a two-day rally beginning Friday.
Dubbed “Passion for Prime,” the public event is intended to promote Wagyu beef and “to get the word out about the benefits of Wagyu beef and the cattle themselves,” said Mike Kerby, vice president of the American Wagyu Association.
Events begin with a gathering from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Friday at the Greyhound Hall of Fame, 407 S. Buckeye, in Abilene. A $10 lunch will feature Wagyu brisket.
An auction of some 50 head of cattle, along with genetics — semen and embryos — is 1 p.m. Saturday at the Farmers & Ranchers Livestock Commission, a sale barn at 1500 Old U.S. Highway 40, just west of Salina.
Organizers suggest arriving early, as breeders and buyers are expected from all over North America plus Canada.
“It’s grown into a huge event. We will have people placing bids from all over the world,” Kerby said.”“There will be some rare stuff at the sale.”
Proponents of Wagyu — the name is translated as “black cow” — tout the breed for the meat it produces, which is known for its marbling, taste and tenderness, Kerby said.
The owner of Buck Mountain Ranch near Warsaw, Mo., Kerby started “Passion for Prime” six years ago as a place for Wagyu breeders and buyers in Missouri to connect.
“Word got out about what we were doing, and people from other states started asking ‘Can I come?’” Kerby said.
Soon speakers from China and Canada were booked and “Passion for Prime” began bouncing around the middle U.S. such as Oklahoma, to build some buzz about Wagyu cattle.
The hearty animals will eat and gain muscle through extreme weather conditions and show resilience as they reproduce, Kerby said.
Wagyu are raised well into Canada where some breeders deal with 40 feet of snow a year, he said.
“They are literally all over the world,” he said, which includes Saline and Ottawa counties.
The breed showed so much promise that Salina ear, nose and throat specialist, Dr. Jerry Cossette, and his wife, Dani, now a nurse anesthetist, began pursuing the breed roughly a decade ago. Their operation, Gypsum Valley Wagyu Cattle Co., which sells mostly wholesale to distributors around the nation, welcomed their first Wagyu calf, produced through an embryo transplant, in March 2009.
The herd has since grown to 300 head, said Jack Cossette, Jerry’s brother, who manages the ranch.
“Every year there seems to be more demand for naturally raised Wagyu cattle, with what they used to call ‘Field to Fork’ traceability,” he said.
Less stressful births
Wagyu cows give birth to calves smaller than popular American breeds, Kerby said, making that process much less stressful on mothers and their young.
“It’s not uncommon to have a 50-pound calf, and they hit the ground growing,” he said.
But the “real advantage” is in the meat, loaded with marbling, that consistently rates above the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s top grade of prime. Roughly five years ago 3 percent of America’s production was graded at prime or above. Last year, a speaker reported that that number had risen to 15 percent, and much of the credit went to Wagyu’s influence.
″(Wagyu) will normally grade at high prime, or there is no way to grade it,” Kerby said. “You get a highly marbled steak that no other breed can compete with.”
He refers to the fat in the meat — marbling — as monounsaturated fat.
“It’s the healthy fat with a lot more Omega 3 and Omega 12 fatty acids than salmon. This marbling starts to melt at room temperature,” Kerby said. “It’s the only breed with the tender gene, the gene that makes the beef able to cut with a fork.”
The higher the marbling, the more it’s worth at a restaurant, Jack Cossette said, telling of steaks costing upwards of $170 served at fancy eateries.
Wagyu suppliers charge astronomical prices for the meat, he said, mentioning a Canadian company being paid $12,000 to $15,000 a carcass, versus $1,500 to $2,000 for the carcass of other breeds; $3,000 to $4,000 “if you piece it out by the steak,” he said.
Many commercial breeders in the United States have taken notice, Kerby said, and are incorporating Wagyu genetics into their herds.
Cross breeding cattle
Cross breeding domestic cattle with Wagyu through artificial insemination will produce a 50-percent Wagyu calf that fetches a hefty premium.
Bigger money comes from injecting females of other breeds with Wagyu embryos and using Wagyu semen to impregnate the cow, producing a full-blooded Wagyu calf.
“We’ve tripled the amount of prime because of the influence of the Wagyu bulls on commercial herds,” Kerby said.
The Wagyu invasion of the U.S. began in the 1970s when four bulls — two Wagyu Reds and two Wagyu Blacks — were exported to the States.
“There were no full-blood cows. Everything was crossbred,” he said.
U.S. producers began importing females in the 1990s, but the numbers were just in the hundreds, Kerby said.
To protect the breed integrity, he said, the Japanese government no longer allows live Wagyu cattle to leave the country. But the breed has been preserved in this nation.
Wagyu are still very rare in these parts.
“We’ve got genetics from the first animals brought into the country that I wouldn’t sell for less than $5,000 a straw (semen sample),” Kerby said.
With commodity prices low and weather unfavorable to spring planting Jack Cossette views the Wagyu cattle venture to be the most exciting on the farm and ranch.
“It’s still producing a pretty hefty profit, but it took us four years to get there,” he said. “You don’t make a dime until you make enough calves to sell, and they have to be finished cattle.”