They’ve been called the “Mercedes of the Meat Business,” and the tenderness and palatability of Wagyu beef is legendary.
Wagyu cattle originated in Japan in the second century. Like nearly all cattle, they were first used for transportation. Because the terrain was rugged, new cattle were not introduced and the isolation of the area caused unique breeding and feeding techniques.
It is said that in the past, beer and Sake were fed to the cattle, to aid in digestion. In some parts of Japan, where the terrain was extremely rough, the cattle were massaged by herdsman to help their circulation. Show Wagyu in Japan are still fed beer and sake and are massaged.
Through many centuries of breeding selection, the eating quality traits of texture, tenderness and flavor have been selected. In 1635, to protect these traits, the shogun of Japan issued a mandate officially closing the herd.
Wagyu are listed as a national heritage item in Japan. In Japan, there are four breeds considered to be Wagyu. The production of Wagyu beef in the country is highly regulated and progeny testing is mandatory.
Wagyu cattle: four bulls and five cows, came to the U.S. in 1975 as a gift from the royals to an American doctor who had been flown to Japan to treat members of the family. In 1993, when the Japanese tariff on imported beef was lowered, more animals were imported to the U.S., as well as to other countries, increasing the number of the breed in the States.
Morgan Ranch, in Burwell, Neb. has been in the cattle business for six generations, first raising Herefords and exporting them to Japan. In the early 1990s, they began raising Wagyu beef. Dan Morgan’s Japanese customers told him the beef coming from the Sandhills was good, but it wasn’t quite good enough.
“They convinced us to improve the quality of our beef,” he said. “That is a big pill for a Sandhills rancher to swallow.”
Wagyus are a breed selected for their eating quality, Morgan said.
“They are not selected for their ability to withstand Nebraska winters or grow as fast as they can,” he added.
The taste is not like regular beef, he noted. The muscle fibers are softer and more tender.
“It’s a much richer beef taste than what commodity beef is.”
Wagyu beef also requires a different cooking style because of that. It is best served medium to medium rare, to experience the different flavors and the juiciness of the product.
Morgan said, without getting too scientific, he can tell that the melting temperature of the fat is much lower than in commodity beef.
“You can tell that by putting it between your fingers,” he explained. “It begins to melt and gets very oily and buttery.”
Wagyu beef is also more heart-healthy than mainstream beef breeds. The mono-unsaturated to saturated fat ratio is higher in Wagyu than in other beef, and the saturated fat is also different. Forty percent of the saturated fat is stearic acid, which is thought to have a lower impact on raising cholesterol levels.
Wagyu cattle are low-maintenance, Morgan said, and have a very low birthweight. Calf vigor is good, although the animal doesn’t grow as fast as American breeds. Speed is not the goal with Wagyu — “it is an issue of quantity versus quality, and price versus value,” he said. The average birthweight for a Wagyu purebred is between 50 and 60 pounds. For a first-cross calf, it’s in the 60 to 70 range. If Wagyu are fed out for the commodity market, it can be done in 18 months. For the cattle the Morgans feed, it takes an additional 30 to 60 days.
The animals aren’t that different from mainstream breeds in temperament, Morgan said. They can be nervous animals, but not exceptionally. They seem to need an “alpha” bull and cow to lead them, he said.
“They’re timid. They don’t try to kill you,” he said, adding they are easy keepers. “They’re a relatively low maintenance type of cattle.”
Wagyu beef is most often found in premium stores and restaurants, and when the Morgans first started with Wagyu, marketing was key. The hardest part, according to Morgan, was convincing Michelin star restaurants to serve beef.
“You’d have a five-course, 10-course meal and it would not have beef in it,” Morgan said. “They didn’t have the product that had the flavor profile they wanted, to blend with the other courses.”
It took a long time for Morgan to convince chefs to serve Wagyu. Morgan Ranch Wagyu beef is sold to several restaurants in Nebraska and over 100 Michelin starred restaurants around the world.