When Bob Estrin took his first bite of a Kobe steak four years ago, he was intrigued and wanted more information on the type of cattle that produce the meat. Besides the taste, the price of a Kobe steak also peaked his interest as a potential niche market for cattle.
Once he learned the Wagyu cattle were used as the genetic base to produce the beef, he began working to convert the British-based cowherd on his wife’s family ranch near Golden, N.M., to full-blood Wagyu seedstock.
While the breed seems “phenotypically challenged,” as Estrin says, “you have to do a double take when you try the meat. The steaks are fantastic.” Restaurants want the high-end cuts and are willing to pay for the Prime beef, and Estrin says the breed grades 95 percent Prime.
Since EPD information is scarce on the Wagyu breed in general, Estrin learned to judge the phenotypic traits of the cattle. He’s also collecting data and crunching numbers to create a breeding program that will provide top-quality Wagyu genetics. Along with the data collection, he’s also relying on GeneSTAR DNA testing to identify genetic markers for desirable carcass traits, such as tenderness. As a whole, the breed is slowly building a database of information for EPDs. “My mission is to build prodigy data on the bulls produced from this herd.”
To completely convert the herd’s genetics, Estrin relied on embryo transfer and used the existing cows as recipients. Currently, he’s adding more recips to speed up herd size. The recipient cows are given three opportunities to take embryos. Those that don’t are culled. By being aggressive with the embryo program, their goal is to have 150 head of full-blood bulls for sale within the next three years.
From a production standpoint, the breed is slow growing. The average birthweight is 65 pounds and wean at 4 months of age, weighing 300 to 350 pounds. To reach the desirable well-marbled beef, the cattle stay on feed for 350 days, compared to the typical 100 days on feed as the industry average. While the beef may take time to become Prime, the breed is fertile and matures early. A 14- to 16-month old bull is usually ready to be turned out to service cows, Estrin says.
The number of full-blood Wagyu is small in the United States, with numbers ranging from 3,000 to 5,000 head. Because of that, producers can’t afford to feed out and slaughter full bloods. So Estrin is focused on building purebred numbers to sell to producers wanting to cross with existing cowherds to produce the high-grading beef. Eventually, though, he plans on feeding out the Wagyu cattle from his own ranch.
The market for this high-quality breed is still a niche size and most breeders of Wagyu want to keep those numbers limited and keep the brand elevated. “We’re running a Mercedes Benz dealership, not a Toyota,” Estrin explains. By keeping the numbers in check while slowly growing the breed, he hopes to keep Wagyu beef bringing a premium price.