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Published September 26, 2009, 12:00 AM

Cattlemen building herd of Wagyu

SALINA, Kan. (AP) — A New Mexico excursion to explore a niche market convinced Salina cattleman Jack Cossette that the Japanese Wagyu breed was worth a try to increase profits.

SALINA, Kan. (AP) — A New Mexico excursion to explore a niche market convinced Salina cattleman Jack Cossette that the Japanese Wagyu breed was worth a try to increase profits.

The ultimate decision rested on his taste buds.

One bite of a steak at the Lone Mountain Cattle Co. auction in April 2008 tipped him into believing that his brother, Jerrold Cossette, was right to pursue the Wagyu.

"It’s got that buttery taste," Jack said.

Jerrold, a Salina ear, nose and throat specialist, owns Gypsum Valley Wagyu Cattle Co. in eastern Saline County.

Jack Cossette, a former restaurateur as owner of JC’s Bar & Grill in Salina, manages his brother’s farm and cattle ranch. It traditionally has raised the black Angus breed but has added Wagyu, a breed that touts high profits for producers and beef that’s healthier and tastier, according to Lone Mountain promotional materials.

The Cossettes have 14 full-blooded Wagyu cattle, including three bulls. Their first Wagyu calf, produced through an embryo transplant with help from Dickinson County veterinarian Casey Barten, was born in March.

The goal, Jack Cossette said, is to build a 200-head Wagyu herd; to sell full-blooded Wagyu cattle, the offspring of Wagyu crossbred to Angus, (called American-style Kobe beef), along with semen and embryos harvested from the Wagyu.

Thanks to the taste of their meat, health benefits and breed rarity, Wagyu cows generally are selling for $7,500 to $8,500 apiece and up to $30,000 for those with the best bloodlines, Jack Cossette said. By comparison, an Angus cow with a "real good bloodline" is worth $3,000 or more.

A Wagyu steak, even an American-style Kobe, commands an astronomical price in restaurants.

Lone Mountain Cattle Co. owner Robert Estrin paid $16 an ounce for it — $90 for a required 5-ounce minimum at a high-end restaurant — when he first tasted Wagyu beef about six years ago.

"It was basically an appetizer," Estrin said.

On a 2007 trip to Las Vegas, Glenn Skulborstad, of Salina, a fellow Wagyu producer, saw an advertisement for a six-ounce American Kobe steak, for $170.

"It melts in your mouth. Once you’ve eaten it, you’ll say that’s the best beef you’ve ever had," said Skulborstad, a retired Salina South history and social studies teacher.

The best cuts of Angus beef are rated prime. Wagyu beef "is graded better than prime in the United States," Jack Cossette said.

The Cossettes have dined on American style Kobe beef in restaurants in Santa Fe, N.M., and in Washington, D.C. (paying $75 to $80), Jack said, and have been impressed.

"Basically they kind of sear them on a grill. You don’t have to marinate it like other steaks," he said.

Wagyu beef isn’t sold much in these parts, because not enough people can afford it, said Ron Duis, manager of Smoky River Meats, 215 W. Kirwin.

"With (American-style) Kobe beef, you’re getting up to $75 to $100 a pound," he said. "There might be a select few in Salina who would pay that kind of a price, but the normal customer would not."

A first glance, the raw cuts of meat from the Wagyu can be startling, Jack Cossette said, with more fat — marbling — intertwined with the red flesh.

Much of that melts away when it’s cooked into a tender piece of meat that can be cut with a fork, Skulborstad said.

The result is flavorful beef with higher amounts of essential fat than any other breed. It can increase good cholesterol and lower bad cholesterol in your blood, according to a Lone Mountain brochure.

The Wagyu produce smaller calves that make birthing easier, he said. The animals are docile and seem to have adapted well to this climate.

The cost to feed Wagyu is higher, Estrin said, because those Japanese critters have to be fed much longer before they’re ready for slaughter.

A regular steer goes to the processing plant after three to five months on feed, Estrin said. In order for the Wagyu to build the tasty marbling into their meat, it takes 27 to 30 months.

To ensure a high price, the Wagyu calves have to be certified. Blood and tail hair samples are sent to a laboratory in California to confirm their genetics, Jack Cossette said.

By doing the embryo transfers, the Cossettes expect to quickly build their Wagyu herd, and to make money by selling calves, bulls, cows, embryos and semen.

"It’s going to be quicker than Mother Nature," he said.

Gypsum Valley Wagyu Cattle Co. is a major client in Casey Barten’s Bluestem Embryo Transfer Center in south-central Dickinson County. The center was built in 2007.

Casey Barten, along with his brother Matt Barten, a radiology and ultrasound technologist at Comcare in Salina, and their father, Lynn Barten, a Dickinson County farmer and rancher, operate the center. Matt conducts routine sonographic evaluations on cows, to determine reproductive status and the sex of the calf in the womb.

Bluestem is in charge of embryo transfers and embryo freezing. Semen collection and freezing will be done at Kansas State University, Jack Cossette said.

"We’re just starting out. We’ll grow together. 2010 will probably be a big year for us," Casey Barten said.

Included in the plan is to "super-ovulate" the cows so they produce several eggs that can be fertilized. The embryos and semen can be frozen and sold to other breeders.

"Once we get a name for ourselves, we’ll be selling on the Internet and locally to farmers and ranchers to help them increase their profits, too," Jack Cossette said. "We’ll have to build a rapport with customers."

The Gypsum Valley Wagyu Cattle Co. Web site is currently under construction.

Jack Cossette is mulling slogans to promote the venture, such as "Eat Better Beef" or "Wagyu, What’s New."

Estrin is not concerned about saturating the market and driving down the Wagyu price.

The U.S. Wagyu herd is tiny, he said, with 3,000 to 5,000 head, while there are 25,000 in Australia and about 500,000 in Japan.

The Angus herd is in the range of 30 million, he said.

"This is a tiny market, catering just to the top end," Estrin said.

He expects the market to have staying power, unlike other livestock ventures, such as ostrich and alpaca.

"Those are fads," Estrin said. "All these things are hot for a minute and they go away."

He places Wagyu beef in the same class with other expensive delicacies.

"They sell caviar. It has not gone down the tubes. Truffles still cost an arm and a leg," Estrin said. "The Japanese have been eating Wagyu since the 1860s and the price remains the same."