While the direct-to-consumer market is a tough business to get a grip on, the direct-to-consumer Wagyu market is another beast entirely.
For Feddersen USA Wagyu, it was their only option throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
Calling Anthon, Iowa home, Feddersen USA Wagyu started raising full blooded Wagyu cattle in 2017 and ran into a snag in 2020 as their first set of cattle were ready to be harvested. For two and a half years, which is the time it took the Feddersen’s to raise a worthy animal of the Wagyu connotation, there was no income on the farm. The pandemic threw them through a loop.
“Our heads started spinning,” Brad Feddersen said.
Brad and his wife, Shawna, live on the western Iowa farm with their two children Sophie, 13, and Dash, 11. The whole family is involved in the show with their children helping to run their YouTube channel, Feddersen USA Wagyu.
Large packing plants shut down as the virus spread last spring and small butchers were booking up. As the options started weighing on the Feddersens to find an outlet for the 90 head they had ready to sell, Brad began working with small brokers and local lockers to get meat to those looking to experience genuine, full-blooded Wagyu steak and hamburgers.
After a few weeks, Brad and Shawna put their heads together and shifted their entire business to direct-to-consumer marketing and put together a website. With compliant refrigeration and a website to order specific cuts of meat, the operation moved online in mid-2020 where they could reach those all across the country rather than just the Midwest.
“By doing everything backwards, it’s been a long, hard process,” Brad said. “I do a lot of things by the spur of the moment.”
“It was never a plan. There was no time to think about it,” Shawna added.
Over the next few months, Shawna and Brad began what they referred to as a “grassroots campaign” to get their beef out to consumers who would otherwise be hesitant to try the expensive, marbled alternative to traditional beef.
They started explaining to any and all who would listen the benefits of Wagyu beef and how it compares to what’s typically on the plate.
“Once you get them over that initial fear, they always come back,” Shawna said. “People are scared of the $100 steak, but $12.99 for a burger and fries (is a good entry point).”
As of December, the Feddersen’s had sold beef to every corner of the country with their peak coming in November when Feddersen USA Wagyu won top-honors at the Triple Crown Steak Challenge. The steak challenge puts top Wagyu producers from the U.S. up against five taste categories. The Feddersen’s were the only competitor to win three of the top categories for full-blood Wagyu.
What is Wagyu beef?
Dubbed “the best tasting steak you can eat,” Wagyu translates to “Japanese cow” in Japanese. While it’s a fairly common breed in Japan with four distinct types of Wagyu cattle, the most well-known and traditionally considered to be “special” is the Kuroge Washu.
The confusion, however, is that all beef under any of the “Wagyu” umbrellas from Japan can receive that label while just the Washu breed can produce top quality ratings. It’s even more muddled, as currently Wagyu cattle exports are banned in Japan.
Between 1975 and 1997, however, Kuroge Washu Wagyu cattle were exported to the United States, which is how the breed began its life in U.S. herds. Brad and his father, Larry, happened to be custom feeders for a producer in Texas and realized that they could handle raising full blooded, U.S.-born-and-raised Wagyu on their own, thus beginning their effort to get into the niche market in 2017.
As a custom feeder for 17 years, Brad said if there is one thing he knows how to do “it’s feed cattle.” Tailoring to Wagyu’s unique feeding habits is how the Feddersen’s beef achieved top honors. It’s perhaps the most important aspect of raising Wagyu cattle.
While there is very little research on Wagyu in the United States due to its very niche market, it’s understood that Wagyu cattle on average take far longer to feed and grow properly due to their genetic makeup and need for a low-stress environment, according to Warren Rusche, beef feedlot management associate for South Dakota State University Extension.
Brad said that his cattle have lived with as little stress as possible over the last two and a half years. He credited Iowa’s producers and ethanol plants for coming together to produce top quality feed.
“We have quality hay and with that mixture we’ve been able to get good gains and great meat,” he said.
One aspect that made the Feddersen’s operation ideal for cattle was their location in a very hilly part of western Iowa. The cattle go to dry places to get out of the wind. That ability for the cattle to manage themselves was an added benefit, Brad said.
On top of the low stress environment, those raising Waygu have to consider how they handle the animals and who handles them. Just a set few people interact with the Feddersen herd, and they use horses instead of ATVs to keep noise levels down while working in the yards.
As of 2020, the American Wagyu Association estimates that there are just over 25,000 full blooded Wagyu cattle in the U.S. The breed makes up just 0.029% of all cattle in the country.
Perhaps the reason Wagyu has remained niche in the U.S. even after the brand identity has exploded is simply due to the culture surrounding U.S. beef production.
Rusche guesses a lot of the issue with raising Wagyu in the U.S. will always be marketing. Getting fresh beef to each corner of the country is a challenge places like Japan don’t have to deal with.
“Where our cattle are and where our population is are not the same place,” Rusche said. “I don’t have enough neighbors that will eat that much beef at the price I need it to go.”
Due to their niche marketing space, Feddersen said it’s his goal to get his beef into local Sioux City and Iowan locations so local producers can try Wagyu for the first time.
“I want to work with people who represent who we are,” he said.
One way he’s gotten the word out over the last year has been to simply let his neighbors come over for a taste of the beef. His neighbor, who feeds 7,000 cattle, came over one night to try a Wagyu steak and left saying it was the best meat he’s ever tasted. Some neighbors he’s traded his beef with just to let them experience a taste of something new.
What makes Wagyu unique?
The biggest question on Wagyu has been what exactly makes the beef different from its counterparts. The simple answer is marbling.
Marbling, or the intramuscular fat in specific cuts of meat, is what many consider to be the main contributor of “overall flavor” in a cut of beef.
Christina Bakker, the SDSU Extension meat science field specialist, said that Wagyu was bred specifically because of its marbling capability. While each breed of Wagyu has slightly different marbling expectations, all Wagyu beef is typically renowned for tenderness, juiciness and flavor due to its consistent marbling.
Due to its marbling potential and grade, Wagyu beef typically sells for much higher than the average cut of beef and is almost always sold directly to “white cloth restaurants” rather than grocery stores, although places like Costco and Sam’s Club have been known to sell Wagyu cuts in small quantities.
Bakker said that even though Wagyu is perhaps the most sought-after cut for restaurants, it is a double edged sword in the world of meat. Due to the increasing craze for low-fat diets and leaner cuts of meat, Wagyu’s intense marbling – which is pure fat – is typically left out of any low-fat diet. But it continues to be the top rated cut of beef for flavor.
Both Bakker and Rusche agreed that typically the slow process to raise the cattle and the niche market needed to sell the beef are the major deterrents for producers.
“The producers themselves have to go through and decide the potential for a better price is (worth it) to offset the cost,” she said.
One rising trend that is bound to continue past the pandemic, Bakker said, is that consumers want to have a connection with the food they eat. Even pre-pandemic, direct-to-consumer beef and beef tracing has been a rising trend to assure consumers that their meat isn’t coming from a mistreated herd.
Bakker said she expects many producers will be able to use niche breeds like Wagyu to capitalize on that market.
“A lot of people have gone toward having a connection with the food and where it comes from,” she said.
After going through the marketing process backwards, Brad and Shawna said they have no plans to stop raising full blooded Wagyu and getting the message out to consumers that U.S.-raised Wagyu is here and available.
“This is personal. I’m proud of what we’ve done,” Brad said.
You can reach the Feddersen’s at their website www.ilovewagyu.com. If you live in the Western Iowa area, you may also see the Feddersen’s mobile meat fridge driving around the Sioux City area to various events.