|Approx. cost per unit||$ 0.00|
What's the deal with Wagyu?
Being in the meat business, more specifically the Wagyu beef business, I am accosted daily with misinformation about Wagyu. Really, sometimes I'm triggered so bad I have to sit in a corner, rocking back and forth, chewing on the tastiest steak imaginable. It's rough, but I signed up for this gig under the premise that I'd have first dibs on a bite of tasty tenderloin with some Kyoto Maiko under the cherry blossoms and I'm sure it's going to happen any day now.
Wagyu (rhymes with argue) is Japanese beef. The “Wa” means Japan, the “gyu” means bovine. Wa can also mean harmony, the elusive wa is at the heart of Japanese culture, perhaps that's why I've never seen it, it's buried so deep. But Wagyu does not mean harmonious cow, although that would be cool, in this case, it's just Japanese Beef and it's the breed of cattle developed in Japan. Now the pedantic, like to say that Wagyu is not a breed of cattle, as there are 3 or 4 strains of cattle in Japan that constitute different breeds. I don't really think it's worthwhile to debate the point, the vast majority of beef cattle in Japan are what are known as black haired Wagyu and the populations of the others are so small that, if we were comparing them to the US, it's more like the difference between the herd on one ranch versus another. There are a few red ones, there are some with shorter horns, but hair color and the size of the rack don't have any relationship to marbling which is what's important when it comes to Japanese beef.
Despite what you might have heard, Wagyu are not an ancient breed. Japan has had cows for a long time, sure. They've had these big ox-looking animals with huge horns but they weren't really for eating. They used them to pull plows, as fertilizing machines, and some folks even rode them. This crazy dude here was riding a cow around 400 years ago until he decided to get into the medicinal booze business and started up Yomeishu which is totally worth a visit if you ever find yourself in Komagane, Nagano.
(thank you little orange blog for the picture, I owe you a steak!)
So there is nothing deeply historical about the origins of Japanese beef. Up until not long ago, most people didn't even eat beef, or much meat at all. In fact they weren't really allowed to. For hundreds of years it was actually prohibited, but with a lot of loopholes. Farmers out in the countryside did enjoy a bit of venison or wild boar on occasion, as did just about anyone else that could get their hands on it. But because meat was a bit taboo, people called it by different names, like wild boar was called "botan"(peony) meat, and horse was called "sakura"(cherry blossom). It's likely that the only time beef was consumed was when a draft animal was injured, which is possibly where the popular dish suki-yaki originated as a suki is a type of plow or spade.
There was a small trickle of cattle brought over from the Asian mainland or island hopping through Taiwan and what was then the Ryukyu islands, now Okinawa. Then the Portuguese and later the Dutch likely brought some cattle with them to Kyushu about 500 years ago. So the Japanese herd was not completely without some outside influences. The Portuguese also introduced everybody's pub favorite, fish and chips, which is where tempura comes from.
Things really started to change when the Black Ships arrived in 1853. Even though it's likely that people ate some beef from time to time, the official first animal slaughtered for human consumption was in Shizuoka in 1856. As part of the opening of Japan, the first US consul demanded some beef from the host nation and had himself the first Wagyu steak. U.S.A.! U.S.A.! U.S.A.!
With the Meiji Restoration cattle production began in earnest. Japan was going insane trying to catch up to the rest of the world after locking itself in the closet for a couple of centuries. Within just a few years the country went from an isolated feudal backwater where samurai still openly wore swords, to becoming absolutely obsessed with adapting the best of modern practices in all areas.
Remember how the celebrated Civil War veteran Tom Cruise came to Japan to help reform the military and ended up going native? Well something similar actually happened when the central government stepped in to modernize agriculture. Except instead of guns and stuff, they began importing all kinds of European cattle breeds. They brought in dairy cattle, beef cattle, and draft animals hoping to improve their domestic herd through cross breeding. They even brought in experts like the American good ol' Billy Clark up in Hokkaido to set up educational and research programs. This dude was a former Colonel in the Union Army, and was President of the Massachusetts Agricultural College (now Amherst) and he was brought to Japan to teach them a thing or two about farming and animal husbandry. So basically exactly like Tom Cruise except for the swords and stuff. I bet but he wore his shoes inside at least once. From 1877 to the end of the Meiji era in 1912, Japan went from slaughtering just 34,000 head of cattle a year, to over 260,000 per year. Boys be ambitious indeed!
(Missus and mini-meat in Sapporo)
It was at the turn of the century that Japan established an Agricultural Ministry and started getting serious about developing Japanese beef. But it wasn't until the end of the Meiji Era and the beginning of the Taisho Era (1912) that the government abandoned the cross breeding program and began to focus on the development of a Japanese breed. Just as a few years before Japan had gone hog-wild in adopting all things Western, the government at the time was more inward focused and developing their own Japanese version of Western things, an empire being one of them, which caused a few problems later on.
It was the government of Imperial Japan that started focusing on the breeding and feeding necessary to make good beef. They took what was now largely a mongrel herd of domestic cattle mixed up with all kinds of foreign breeds that they had imported during the rush to modernize and set off to create their own Japanese cattle, Wagyu. They had a few different strains going on simultaneously in different regions, but they were all from a similar gene pool and were all focused on producing a similar product.
One side effect of the militarization of Japan was that people began eating a lot more beef. Beef hadn't really caught on that well in early 20th century Japan. People ate beef, but there was still an "unclean" image surrounding. Back then the only people involved in the handling of meat tended to be members of Japan's untouchables class, the Eta. However Japan had put together an enormous Navy and it's soldiers were suffering from vitamin deficiencies. The answer to the dietary problem was beef curry on rice and that's what the soldiers lived on. When they got out they had developed a taste.
(Oh Japan, why must you be so insensitive?)
A lot of bad stuff happened for a few years, things that are best left to the historians and their revisionists. But eventually the war was over, Japan embraced peace once again, and reconstruction began.
During the 1950's and 60's Japan went through another absolutely insane transformation. Just like during the Meiji era, everything was being improved. Like the new bullet trains and robots,Japan's cattle industry was being re-imagined into something for the future. Japanese farmers did not have the same land resources as cattlemen in other countries, so in order to get the most out of each animal, they focused on carcass quality. Specifically on carcasses with exceptional marbling. This allowed them to get the most money per animal with a limited amount of space.
(The first bullet train started running in 1964. Those barriers leading to the track were installed because old ladies would bow to each other across the tracks and get whacked in the head by a passing train)
This new focus on carcass quality also created a nice little synergy with the newly booming dairy industry in Japan. Like beef, dairy had never really taken off in Japan until after the war. Then during the post-war economic boom, consumption drastically increased. Not necessarily because the Japanese were drinking lots of milk, but coffee suddenly became huge and everybody put milk in it. Breakfast changed from fish and rice to butter on toast, and instead of mochi for dessert, cake and ice cream. In most places, dairy calves aren't worth much money so they get turned into veal right away. The Japanese market at the time didn't really have much use for veal, but with the dairy boom it had loads of diary calves. The solution was to cross breed the dairy cows with a Wagyu bull for an F1 terminal cross that could be fed out, sometimes producing a carcass with as much marbling as full blood Wagyu.
At this point the industrial infrastructure to produce the highly marbled meat that's famous today was in place. You had a population that accepted beef. With the offspring of dairy cows, F1 crosses, and full blood you had a three tiered market that provided the highest return for Wagyu beef. Additionally there were several regional beef associations branding their local products in attempt to snatch the top tier of the market such as Kobe, Matsuzaka, and Omi. Trade agreements allowed Japan to import corn and other grains to feed all these beef cattle, while at the same time keeping their market closed to beef imports. This created what these days is called a Galapagos affect because it has something to do with turtles, perhaps ninja ones, but I'm not sure.
Obligatory cherry blossom tree. Nearby Sonohara.
Around about this point in the story, Japan's got the fixin's for world class beef, but it needs two more things to really kick it up to eleven. Technology and money. The technology came along in the form artificial insemination (AI) and embryo transfer (ET). With AI, once a superior sire was identified, it's possible to use semen from that bull to breed large numbers of cows. Even more useful is ET. It became possible to flush some eggs from a heifer, freeze them, and then decide on whether or not to use them based upon her carcass quality at slaughter. It's true that in other countries both of these tools have been available for the same amount of time and are used regularly, but no where else was the trait selection for marbling so intensive.
Whenever I tell this tale, people are always very interested in how you get a bull to donate semen for the greater cause, it takes a bit more than a locked door and box of tissues. You might want to skip ahead a bit if graphic images upset your delicate sensibilities. There are three ways to get semen from a bull. The first is the NRA method, in which it's pried from his cold, dead, balls. This has the distinct disadvantage of only working once. The second method is the bait and switch. You tie up a female that's in heat and you bring a bull into the same pen with her. You need a long, bull-size version of a flesh light. When the bull mounts and heads for home, some poor veterinarian in coveralls leaps to the intercept and catches the pass with the plastic artificial receiver, all with his arm stretched out to full extension, his face turned away, while wishing he'd gone to dental school. If the bull doesn't wish to cooperate, or he's been catfished so many times that he's on to the game, a third method is required. With this the bull is run down an alley and that same vet goes to work on him from behind. An electro-stimulator gets shoved up his poop chute (the bull's not the vet's) and a current is applied. A technician adjust the frequency of the electrical pulse while watching for the bulls reaction. Once he's found the sweet spot, a look of bovine-bliss comes across his face (once again, the bull's not the vet's), and once again the artificial receiver is deployed. I know it sounds really romantic, but in real life it can feel a bit clinical.
This guy's seen it all before.
Before we got stuck venturing down that masturbatory rabbit hole, I mentioned money. Wagyu would not be the high-class beef it is today if Japan's economy had not exploded. During the early post-war years and immediately following reconstruction, Japan was all about making inexpensive goods. The whippersnappers won't remember, but there was once a time when the "Made in Japan" label meant "cheap". But then a magical period in Japan called "The Bubble" began. Japanese people had serious money and they spent it buying the best of everything. Famous works of art, prime real estate in New York, and the best possible steak.
Japanese farmers are able to retain ownership of the animal post slaughter and sell it at auction as a swinging carcass. When the auction is hot, the carcass might bring in $15 - $20,000, you can see why your average Japanese farmer would only need to sell 3 or 4 head per year. But the bubble was a time of excess. At the peak in 1989 there was a carcass from Matsuzaka that sold for nearly $400,000. I'd be remiss though if I didn't point out that extravagant auction prices are just a part of the marketing mix in the food industry in Japan. It's common to hear of tuna or melons selling for thousands of dollars, mostly this is just the result of one wholesaler publicly buying from their favorite supplier, who then privately either returns a lot of the money or throws a lot more melons and fish in the truck later on. But it makes for good headlines and the only cost of advertising is the commission fees to the auction house. Even though the highest prices are mostly for fluff, Japanese beef still brings in good money at the auction. A-4 Wagyu carcasses will go for over 2000 yen/kg while F1's will sell for around 1500/kg, on a 350 kilo carcass that's $3200 - $6000 a head. That's compared to a US Choice carcass which is worth a little over $1500 when the market is high. (all these numbers are based on December, 2015 prices)
But what about American Wagyu? Is it real?
I get asked this all the time. Is it real? Well it sure as hell ain't imaginary. The cows eat everyday and the warehouse sends a bill every month for the meat storage. Most folks want a simple answer, but it's not exactly simple. I'll try and give you as much information as I can and you can decide how real it is.
First it's necessary to understand how Wagyu came to America, and Australia, and every other place outside of Japan that it's now being produced. Back in the early 90's Japan liberalized beef imports. Before that there was a quota system and all beef imports flowed through a government controlled monopoly. Meat companies in Japan were excited, still flush with cash (and credit) because of the bubble, they figured the way to make money was to buy low and sell high. Japanese beef was expensive, foreign beef was cheap, so the trick was to turn foreign beef into Japanese beef. For a decade many different companies tried all kinds of schemes to bring in everything from whole carcasses to live cattle so that they could slap the "Made in Japan" label on it and call it domestic. Often they didn't even go to the trouble of skirting the rules, they just relabeled. It was big game of cat and laser pointer; somebody would get caught, the government would tighten regulations, and the meat traders would look for a new loophole.
Engrish and Peace are big in Japan.
It was in this environment of pull-the-wool-over-the-consumer's-eyes meat trading that a lot of folks in the meat business got the idea of raising Wagyu outside of Japan. The big Japanese meat companies wanted something that they could pass off as Japanese beef but for 1/3rd the cost (to them). Soon Wagyu genetics started to trickle out of Japan under the premises that the Japanese would buy back all of the production. At the time everyone was talking about setting up F1 programs, these first generation crosses already had a niche in the Japanese market (remember the marriage of the Japanese beef and dairy industry) so they figured it would be a cinch to replicate it in America.
Many of the largest stores of Wagyu genetics in the world are put to use in F1 programs still today. I'll leave others to determine if they've been successful or not, but they have been plagued by some problems that I don't think the Japanese meat traders anticipated when they were originally encouraging them. For one thing, the out cross tended to be different. In Japan, an F1 is a cross between a Wagyu bull and usually a Holstein dairy cow. Even though Holsteins are bred for milk production, if given enough feed, they will actually produce fairly well marbled meat. In the US, the dominate breed is Angus and that's what they used to crossbreed with the Wagyu. Nearly all of these F1's will produce marbling that is superior to Angus alone, and occasionally they will marble nearly as well as Wagyu, but consistency is always a problem.
They also ran into some problems of economics. While it is possible to produce beef that is similar in grade to that produced in Japan; sometimes with F1's, more often with higher percentage Wagyu; it gets expensive. Wagyu are not efficient animals. It takes more pounds of feed to produce a pound of meat than any other beef animal that I'm aware of. They grow slowly and they eat like a street urchin at a church picnic. If producers try to use hormones to increase their growth rate, they will sacrifice marbling, which defeats the entire purpose. When you add onto this extra cost of production the import duty in Japan of 38.5%, that American F1 Wagyu is no longer a cheap alternative. It still works if the importer can relabel it as domestic, but by the time the big F1 programs had gotten underway, the Japanese government had cracked down on most of that.
Japan does still import a fair bit of beef that comes from Wagyu genetics. However the idea of creating a new market tier for foreign-produced Japanese beef has mostly been abandoned. Even though we've been very successful selling our beef in Japan, and are able to sell it at prices that are sometimes higher than locally produced product, I do not push the Wagyu aspect. We just have really awesome beef from pampered cows.
So...Morgan Ranch Wagyu, is that more like American or more like Japanese?
It was in the early 90's that we got our first Wagyu. The backgrounds of which are steeped in legend and more than a little BS. So the story goes, there was a heart surgeon in Oklahoma who had saved the life of a somewhat removed member of the Japanese Imperial family several years before. As a thank-you gift, he was given a small herd of Wagyu from the Imperial Household herd, a bull and a few heifers. At the time, imports from Japan were not allowed in the US so the animals went through Mexico, and in a time honored tradition, crossed the border with new papers. That surgeon was a neighbor to some friends of ours and since his expertise was in something very distant from cattle rearing, he wanted to unload them and they found their way to us.
When these first Wagyu arrived on the ranch they were ugly. The original herd had grown to 5 or 6 bulls and over a dozen heifers. Unfortunately this growth involved a lot of father-daughter and sister-brother matings so we were dealing with a gene puddle rather than a pool. Drastic action was needed if we were going to salvage something from this. We decided to embark on a plan to recreate Japanese beef on our ranch. My brother had been to Japan several times and knew what our target was, but it would take a lot of trial and error to get a product that we could stand behind.
Due to genetic research, we now know that the reason why Wagyu cattle produce the kind of beef that they do is up to a few genetic mutations. One that is specific to a growth hormone that causes the animal to deposit fat in all the right places, and a couple that determine the presence of oleic acids in the fat which is what makes it melt at a low temperature. If you get the right combination of those genes, and feed the animal properly, you will get incredible beef.
A Wagyu cow in Nebraska.
These days it's possible to send a hair sample to a lab and determine if your breeding stock has the right genetic make up or not. But back when we were getting started it was a matter of trial and error. We took those first handful of Wagyu and we out-crossed them with our Hereford cows and some of our neighbor's Angus cows. We kept the best of that calf crop and we bred them back Wagyu, this was the F2 cross which is 75% Wagyu. We repeated this to get an F3, 87.5%, and again to an F4 which is 93.75% and so on.
We didn't have much carcass data to go on in the beginning so we mostly made breeding decisions based on phenotype and we were juggling a whole host of variables. Wagyu cattle in Japan are mostly raised in small lots, the average size herd is only 5 head. The cattle have feed and water brought to them by hand very day. What we call "soundness", the conformity of the animal that affects its mobility, is just not very important in Japan. But in the Sandhills of Nebraska, our cattle have to survive in section-sized pastures with only a couple of windmills for water. They need to have really good feet and legs underneath of them to get around. They cows need to be able to nurse and raise a calf up so that it's strong enough to get through its first harsh winter. We also hate messing around with horned cattle so we bred them all to be polled.
To further complicate the matter, we weren't sure that our feeding regimen was finely tuned enough. So when we got carcasses that we didn't think were as good as they should be, we couldn't really be sure if it was because of the DNA or because we just didn't feed them enough. We were able to get positive confirmation when things went well, in the form of a beautifully marbled carcass. But it wasn't always easy to sift out the negatives, especially considering that it's over three years from the time you make a breeding decision until you see the results on your grill.
Overtime we also noticed that there was not necessarily a direct correlation in the percentage of Wagyu in an animal and the quality of their carcass. Sometimes an F3 would marble better than an F4. Sometimes a double bred F3 (the offspring of an F3 crossed with another F3) would do better than an F5. We also noticed that even those carcasses that did not exhibit an overabundance of marbling, the meat would still have a much richer flavor than regular beef. Now we know that what we were observing is exactly what you would expect to see when there are only a handful of genes that are providing that boost in carcass score. Sometimes the lower percentage animal has the right genes, but the higher percentage doesn't because they got lost in that very first out cross. Sometimes you get some of the right genes but not the entire package.
In the breeder's circles of any livestock breed there is always debate about terminology. Some breeds define a full blood as an animal that can trace its lineage back X number of generations whereas a purebred can only trace it back some number lower than X. In the American Wagyu generation, that means a full blood must be able to trace all parentage back to Japan. A purebred is an animal that is 15/16th Wagyu, so an F4. It makes sense if you think the essence of Wagyu is it's connection to Japan. But it's kind of silly when those same Wagyu in Japan that you are tracing back to are then traceable to ancestors which came from Europe. Also, under these rules, you can have a lower percentage "Purebred" Wagyu that actually has a better genetic makeup for quality beef due to superior ancestry than does a "Full Blood" that came from more mediocre, albeit Japanese, stock. At the end of the day, it doesn't matter how much Wagyu blood you've got in your herd, some dickhead in the comments section of your YouTube video will point out that it can't possibly be the real thing.
We at the Morgan Ranch bowed out from the genetic purity debate a long time ago. I was going to write that we gracefully bowed out, but grace in not in our genome. Here's what we've done. We took Wagyu genetics and over the course of multiple generations of breeding we developed a line of cattle that not only produce a level of marbling and taste that rivals that of any Japanese product; we also ended up with a cow herd that is perfectly adapted to the environment of the Sandhills of Nebraska. Cattle that thrive on the free range, grow well in the feedlot, and produce the best tasting beef that you'll ever encounter.
About the Author:
The author is Jason Morgan, the Morgan that was was sent away to Japan where he has been engaged in the meat business for 20 years. He's also still involved with Morgan Ranch, although often not in a very helpful way. He finds it easy to write about himself in the third person which is perhaps cause for concern. He might possibly have multiple personalities, the most obvious being the 19th Century French Can-can girl (she only comes out at night) and the Mexican footwear revolutionary (¡Viva Zapata!)
I originally intended to properly footnote and source this. But then I realized that I haven't been a student for over 20 years and everything is pass/fail at this point.