I’ve spent plenty of time in the US in my life – I even have one of their passports which makes life a bit easier when I visit. This though was my first time in the mid west, almost all my previous trips had been to the east coast. My first night was spent in Chicago, where I ate in a goat themed restaurant – standing up at the bar after a woman stole my chair – then took a lift to the 103rd floor of the Willis [Sears] tower, and finally ate a deep dish pizza. I prefer thin crust, but when in Chicago…
The next day I jumped back in the car and headed north through Wisconsin to a small town called Augusta. Here Michael Goodell runs a Wagyu breeding and finishing business called Muddy Flats Cattle. True to its name, it was indeed muddy (and fairly flat now I think about it).
Michael used to be a chef, and then turned into a property guy. I can’t remember more specifically than that what he does, it was a while ago and I didn’t take notes. But he retained his love of food, and hence the foray into Wagyu. He is a rarity in that he both breeds and fattens animals on his farm, whereas most animals in the US are sent off to specialised feed lots for finishing.
Having just come from a disastrous embryo result, he comforted with even worse horror stories; one live calf from 33 embryo transfers. Everyone I visited on this trip had similar stories, aside from one guy, whose name I will not mention. He was either very lucky, or one of those gamblers who forgets the bad results!
Next up was a specialist Wagyu feedlot in Iowa, called A to Z Feeders. By UK standards this is a big operation, with around 1,000 head of cattle on feed at any one point. But in the land of 100,000+ head feedlots, this is fairly modest. They also have a bit of a side line in breeding Wagyu, both Fullbloods and Angus crosses.
All the feed rations are custom blended on the farm by loading them from bulk storage into mixer trucks, which then go straight out to the pens. Each cattle owner can specify which diet they would like to use, but the main constituents are byproducts from the maize-ethanol plants in the surrounding areas. These chuck out a LOT of material, and hence there are correspondingly large numbers of feedlots around them. It’s good to be efficient and use waste products like this, especially when the end result is so tasty. However, we would not get away with this sort of feedlot in the UK – no bedding & no shelter would get the RSPCA on you fairly quickly I would imagine. The cattle seemed happy enough though, so it could just be a difference in perception.
The following few days were taken up with mucking around looking at real work stuff; arable farms in Nebraska & South Dakota. Incidentally it was these, very interesting, visits which made me think I should apply for another Nuffield Scholarship when I got home.
Heading south from Pierre SD, back into Nebraska, I stopped at a ranch in an area of such poor quality soil that when it was first settled the families who stopped there were given four times as much land as normal, so they could make a living. Morgan Ranch is predominantly a Hereford breeding farm, but they have also branched out into Wagyu. Dan Morgan has invested a lot of effort into making export markets for his beef (all Angus crosses), and now a lot of it gets sent air freight to Germany.
The day I happened to be visiting turned out to be the real deal cowboy experience. 450 calves were tagged, branded, vaccinated, steered and dehorned in just over four hours. It was a pretty slick operation, involving at least a dozen people, several of whom had jingling/jangling spurs. In the afternoon, after it was all over, a couple of Wagyu bulls had managed to find their way into this Hereford herd. This meant I got to play cowboy myself and jump on a horse to move them back into their own paddock. They did not trust me with a lasso for some reason, maybe because I was not wearing chaps.
Readers of previous blogs will recognise the name Savery Creek, which is Tom Seitz’s (and his wife’s) ranch in Wyoming. He is a South Park loving university lecturer turned Wagyu breeder who has sold me embryos in the past, and as I write this he is doing the paperwork on another batch of 60 to come over next month. One of the main reasons for this trip was to find out about what I should be feeding my animals to finish them, and Tom very usefully gave me the details of a Japanese ration. The problem was that it was in Japanese, but with a bit of help from Google Translate, and my basic knowledge of the two simple Japanese alphabets (there is a third, much much harder one that I have no clue about) I figured it out eventually.
What does it say? Well I can’t give up ALL the secrets, but the basic gist is that they are very low in protein, and are designed to be fed over the course of at least three years. We are talking 12% CP at the end of the animals life, although the nutritionalist at A to Z told me he found anything less than 14% could cause problems. Personally I am not using this Japanese diet verbatim, as I want to create something local to our area, not ape a different country’s product. Time will tell if this is a good approach.
The final leg of this drive was down to New Mexico, where a retired Hollywood film producer called Bob Estrin has a ranch, called Lone Mountain Cattle Company. Bob is fanatical about Fullblood Wagyu, and would not entertain the idea of crossing them with any other breed. I was told by someone that about 95% of the Fullblood Wagyu being fattened in the US are from LMCC, but we are only talking about 400 a year in total for the whole country – and maybe 2,000 in the entire world outside Japan.
The cattle are born and raised in New Mexico until they are around 18 months old, and then they go elsewhere to be finished. I can not think of many harsher places to farm. It is very hot in the summer, and very cold in the winter (-20C to +45C), and very dry all the time. The photo above shows pretty well the amount of grazing available in the 2000 acre paddocks. Needless to say, a lot of feed is brought in on the back of a truck.
I could not say if this is an economical way to produce meat, but I can say that it is exceptionally, world-beatingly, good stuff. Theoretically, I could have taken some back to the UK and organised a blind tasting in London with 15 chefs, butchers and journalists, and theoretically it could have come out on top of the other nine steaks on offer, 5 of which would have been Wagyu. But as this would have been illegal I could not do it, which was a shame.
What I could do was order some ribeyes off the internet, and get them delivered to my next stop in Seattle. They cost $67 per steak, but I can honestly say this is stonkingly good value for money, especially as one steak will feed to very hungry people. If I can approach this quality from my own animals iI will be very happy indeed.
By now I only had a few days left, and as I just mentioned, there was a quick stop in Seattle. Here I went to see Ralph Valdez at Crescent Harbor Ranch. Ralph has been involved in the US Wagyu industry since the beginning, over 20 years ago. Most of the top genetics flow from or through him at some point, and he is who supplied my first embryos back at the end of 2010. Coming from the desert in New Mexico to this very lush part of the country was a culture shock; he even had grass growing to feed his animals, including this rather eccentric looking bull:
Although Ralph does kill a few steers, he is basically a specialised breeder – along with Bob Estrin they form the hard core of the Fullblood fanatics in the US. He was very keen for me to get more into the breeding side, which is certainly pretty interesting, and a good counterpoint to focusing solely on meat. We are very limited in Europe when it comes to Wagyu genetics, and all the top bulls that are used in the US & Australia are not qualified to be imported here. As we are a small industry none of the big players have bothered with it, so I am starting soon to import semen from the US, which should speed up the genetic improvements we can make. And that has to be the main goal of farming cattle?