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EXPENSIVE TASTES: JB Kobe Farms co-owner Justin Baker raises Japanese-bred wagyu cattle, which produces intense-marbling beef.SBJ photo by WES HAMILTON
EXPENSIVE TASTES: JB Kobe Farms co-owner Justin Baker raises Japanese-bred wagyu cattle, which produces intense-marbling beef.

SBJ photo by WES HAMILTON

Business Spotlight: What in the Wagyu?

Posted online
There’s beef. And then there’s wagyu beef.

The distinction is what JB Kobe Farms has built its business on.

“It’s all about the marbling,” says co-owner Justin Baker.

With agriculture in the family, Baker grew up on a farm.

“We’ve had cattle since I was probably 8 years old,” he says of the usual 40-60 head of Charolais or Angus cattle that produced side income for the family.

It wasn’t until 2003 that the Bakers got into Japanese-bred wagyu – the Cadillac of cattle.

Wagyu beef (pronounced wog-you) is known for its intense marbling, juicy cuts and high prices. Simply put, wagyu is expensive taste.

A quick stroll down online grocery aisles finds wagyu steaks in the $100 per pound range. A few years ago, Costco got its hands on a limited supply of 11-pound cuts and listed them for $1,200 apiece.

But Baker warns not all wagyu is made the same.

“Just because it’s wagyu doesn’t mean it’s higher quality,” he says, cautioning on poor or fragmented wagyu bloodlines.

He says the majority of wagyu in the United States is crossbred.

“It only needs to be 50 percent genetics in order to be called wagyu. It’s good beef, don’t get me wrong, but it’s not as good as pure bred,” Baker says.

In other words, know the beef.

In the Springfield market, JB Kobe Farms’ wagyu fetches between $40 and $55 per pound of rib eye steak, for instance, depending on the genetics. Baker says sells multiple cuts of beef but only two genetic types: 87.5 percent, his current minimum, and 100 percent wagyu certified by the American Wagyu Association. JB Kobe Farms is listed among eight processors of wagyu on the association’s “Where to Buy” webpage, spanning ranches in California, Oregon and Alabama.
 
Wagyu in America
Baker and his mother, Josephine, run JB Kobe Farms with about 220 head of cattle roaming on some 280 acres in Highlandville, south of its Nixa office. 

From his experiences and research, Baker says the Japanese working breed of cattle was first introduced in America in the 1970s and a larger number came over in the 1990s. “That’s all that was ever introduced into this country,” he says. “As far as I know, they don’t intend to bring any more over.”

JB Kobe Farms started by buying wagyu cattle at auctions and from premier breeders. Baker says the bulls run $5,000 for a full-blood and about $7,000 for a female.

With a high upfront investment, the Bakers played the long game for a return. 

“It took us several years of breeding before we had any product to sell.”

On top of that, wagyu cows are smaller and have slower growth rates.

“You’ve got to put your time in to get the meat quality,” Baker says. “We’re keeping these things about twice a long as a normal rancher.”

The main difference is the finishing time, or final fattening of the cows, where they receive a custom daily grain ration before going to slaughter. JB Kobe Farms’ cows spend 400-500 days finishing in their own large pens, Baker says, noting he doesn’t use hormones, antibiotics or steroids.

When finished, he transports the cattle to Horrmann Meat Co.’s processing plant in Fair Grove. The volume is one or two slaughtered every two weeks.

“We’re not a mass producer,” Baker says. “We don’t want to just have wagyu. We want to have the better quality wagyu.”

The last time he bought a bull was three years ago. Now, he’s moved into artificial insemination.

Baker registers 80-100 calves each year with the American Wagyu Association, a process that involves DNA samples and costs of about $10,000 annually.

“They verify who the parents are,” he says. “All our breeding stock is registered.”

On to market
JB Kobe Farms sells directly to consumers and in storefronts at MaMa Jean’s Natural Foods Market and Horrmann Meats. Two high-end restaurants also serve up JB Kobe Farms’ meat cuts: Harvest Restaurant in Rogersville and Level 2 Steakhouse at Hilton Branson.

“It fits our cuisine very well,” says Howard Snitzer, the executive chef/food and beverage director for the Hilton Branson Convention Center Hotel.

At the Level 2 Steakhouse inside the convention center hotel, the check average is $60, and Snitzer says guests have responded well to the wagyu items added to the menu two months ago.

“I pretty much sell whatever he gives me to sell,” he says. “It’s not cheap. We have no problem selling his bone-in rib eye here for $175.”

Other cuts, when available from Baker, are filets and strip loins, as well as skirt steaks and smoked wagyu brisket. At Harvest, chef Craig von Foerster is known to carry wagyu flat iron steaks and tri-tips.

The product from JB Kobe Farms also brought about a first on the Level 2 menu: a wagyu burger.

“It’s really cool to even have access to this stuff,” says Snitzer, who’s worked in Branson since January but in food service since graduating from the Culinary Institute of America in 1978.

Baker says, at 1-inch thick, a single wagyu cow produces 24 rib eyes, 24 strip steaks and 20 filets.

Declining to disclose revenue, he says orders are as needed and depends on supply at the time. He’s patient with the wagyu.

“There’s a reason not everybody does wagyu,” Baker says. “You’ve got to really put in some time and money to get that steak on the table.”

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