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This Nixa, Mo., operation, run by Justin Baker and his mom, Joey, isn't focused on many of the traditional benchmarks important to most cattlemen. Having run a crossbred herd prior to specializing, they are certainly familiar with conventional indicators like weaning weights and days on feed. But those things just don't hold as much importance now. With Wagyu, the rules are different.
Justin explained when you're producing American Kobe beef from full-blood and high-percentage Wagyu cattle, the endgame has far more to do with quality than it does with efficiency.
"It's all about taste," Justin said. "Taste and tenderness are everything in this business. Our goal is to raise the absolutely best-tasting beef you've ever experienced."
Ten years ago, the Bakers bought a Wagyu bull and four cows from Washington State University. Since then, they've expanded the herd to more than 100 head and have seen values increase as more people have become familiar with the beef and demand has grown. A JB Kobe Beef Farms full-blood Wagyu rib-eye steak fetches about $55 per pound. The same cut from three-quarter Wagyu steers sells at $33 per pound. This year, the Bakers expect to harvest six full-blood steers and about 20 of their high-percent steers. They say they could sell more if they had them, but keeping the numbers manageable is key to keeping the quality up.
Just what is a "Wagyu?" This is simply the Japanese word for "cow," although in the U.S., it's a designated breed. Kobe is an area in Japan where a strain of Wagyu earned a reputation for high quality, comparable to sparkling wine from the Champagne region of France. The American version of Kobe beef comes from percentage or full-blood cattle genetically traceable back to this region of Japan.
BLUE BLODDS OF BEEF
The Bakers take a purist approach to Kobe beef production. Through artificial insemination and embryo transfer, they've built up their full-blood herd and upgraded Angus-based cows. At this point, all the beef JB Kobe Beef Farms markets is coming from steers that are three-quarters Wagyu or higher. They also market meat from their full-bloods.
Baker's cattle descend from Japanese Blacks with a concentration of highly regarded Tajima genetics to assure intense marbling. In fact, the Bakers have sons of the breed's first- and second-highest marbling bulls, and they own the third-highest EPD sire for marbling in the world.
Intensely marbled, dramatically more than USDA prime, connoisseurs say Kobe beef melts in your mouth with a rich, buttery taste. For health-focused consumers, it also has higher percentages of monounsaturated fats and Omega-6 and Omega-3 fatty acids. It is lower in cholesterol than commodity beef.
So, if the beef is so incredibly tasty and healthy, not to mention expensive, why don't all cattlemen have Wagyu cattle in their pastures?
"It's not an easy breed to deal with," Justin explained. "To start, the cattle are incredibly expensive, they are somewhat fragile, and it takes a good three years to get a steer ready for processing. It definitely isn't a get-rich-quick enterprise."
TIME AND DEDICATION
Wagyu cattle are fine-boned and slow growing. They have not been bred for reproductive efficiency and, as a result, many females don't breed back on time. They can also be prone to various health issues.
The big issue, however, is the time that needs to be invested to make an enterprise like this work.