History of Wagyu in the United States

Once considered an oddity, Wagyu is now the fastest-growing breed in America
calendar icon 29 January 2024
clock icon 6 minute read

Wagyu breeders, some of whom are new to the breed and the cattle business, were treated to a special panel during the recent World Wagyu Conference in San Antonio, Texas, as three of the breed’s founding fathers gathered to reminisce and recall the early days.

Moderated by past American Wagyu Association President Pete Eschelman, the panel consisted of Jerry Reeves, Ph.D., retired from Washington State University Animal Sciences Department; Ray Record, owner of AgriService International; and Dr. Albert J. Wood, oncology and hematology physician.

The first Wagyu

According to Dr. Reeves, the first Wagyu came to the U.S. in 1975. While those four bulls, two blacks and two reds, are the foundation of Wagyu genetics in America, it was a number of years before any real interest in the breed began to grow.

In 1988, the state of Washington initiated a program to develop ag products for export to Japan and other Asian countries. 

“They found out that tariffs and quotas were going to come off meat into Japan in 1991 and Japan could only produce one-third of the meat they needed,” Dr. Reeves said.

“So I was lucky enough to be one of the people selected to go there from our university to evaluate how to prepare us for that market.” He had never heard of Wagyu. 

“I saw things that I couldn’t imagine. The slaughter plants, the cattle and carcasses were just phenomenal,” he said, “and we didn’t know at that time that there were already four bulls in the US.”

At the time, the Speaker of the US House of Representatives was from Washington and had previously been the ambassador to Japan. He got Washington State University permission to bring Japanese cattle to the US. 

“The US was the only place in the world that could get them out,” Dr. Reeves recalls.

The plan was to cross Wagyu genetics with cattle in the US to produce half-blood product to ship to Japan, which became a successful venture for several ranches. 

“We didn’t assume we would be able to sell this to Americans,” he told Wagyu breeders.

That changed in a big way in 2003 when bovine spongiform encephalopathy or BSE was diagnosed in the United States. 

“All the meat that was going to Japan stopped,” Dr. Reeves recalled, “and there was no place for it to go except back into the US.” 

That took on profound implications because they hadn’t developed a market to sell Wagyu beef or Wagyu cattle in America.

“Most of that meat was sold for 60 cents on the dollar. Nobody wanted it.” 

Dr. Reeves said. However, restaurants began getting the beef at a discount and consumers were introduced to Wagyu beef.

“That changed the whole system,” Dr. Reeves said. “We went from trying to be an exporter (and) we’re consuming our own meat now and basically, we probably have the best market (for Wagyu beef in America) in the world right now."

But that was a difficult period for the Wagyu breed. “We had contracted 2,000 calves and had to come up with the money to pay the producers, because we knew if we didn’t, they wouldn’t be there next year. We weren’t even sure we were going to be there,” he said.

“It was the worst of times and the best of times, because I think that was the second-best thing that ever happened,” he said. “The first was bringing in the new genetics.”

Wagyu association formed

The American Wagyu Association was formed in 1990, according to Ray Record, who was vice president of operations at Granada Land and Cattle at Wheelock, Texas, at the time.

Prior to then, there were 14 people who recorded Wagyu cattle and they formed a group called the Texas Kobe Breeders. It was owned and led by Don Lively, whom all three remembered as a true character and a wheeler-dealer. 

“If any one person is the founder of Wagyu in America beside Morris Whitney, who brought the first bulls in, it’d be Don Lively, because he bred the first cows and really started the marketing,” Record said.

However, the small group thought being Texas oriented was too limiting, so they formed Kobe Beef Producers Incorporated, Record said. As time went on and the breed began to attract attention, it became evident that the breeders needed an actual association, not a group that was owned and led by one person.

“So he (Lively) agreed that we’d form an association that would get the thing off the ground. So, I asked a good friend, Jim Scott, to help because he had a lot of association experience,” Record said. Scott, who ended up being the first AWA executive director, owned some of the first Charolais that came to the US and was the executive director of the American Paint Horse Association.

“We needed a baseline of cattle to register, so the only place we had to go was the Kobe Beef Producers Incorporated,” Record said. He asked for the herd book and was handed a bunch of scratches on a 10-column accounting pad. “That had all the information on all the cattle that had been recorded up to that point in time,” he said.

“So, Jim and I spent a lot of time going through there trying to make pedigrees out of those. I think we ended up with 180 head of cattle officially in the beginning that we could start with as a base for the association.”

What’s ahead?

Dr. Wood was one of the foundational Wagyu breeders in the 1970s after the first four bulls came to America. He began practicing medicine in Corpus Christi, Texas, in the 1970s and bought a ranch soon after.

“We started line breeding and soon ran into problems with inbreeding,” he told Wagyu breeders. “So, when it comes to the small gene pool, we knew we had to get genetics out of Japan; new, fresh genetics.” But things didn’t go well.

“After many years of blocking the export of Wagyu cattle, the dam broke in Japan in 1993. In 1994, we were able to get three full-blood bulls and eight females out of Japan and into quarantine,” he said.

By 2006, however, Dr. Wood’s Red Wagyu enterprise was broke and he returned to practicing medicine. That changed in 2023 when he again became a Wagyu breeder.

“The future looks very bright for Wagyu cattle,” he said, remarking on the changes that have taken place in the fullblood Red Wagyu business and the remarkable acceptance of Wagyu beef in America. That rapidly growing consumer demand for highly marbled Wagyu beef has made Wagyu the fastest growing breed in the country.

“Pearls of wisdom? Well, I can tell you how not to run a cattle business,” he joked. “However, I can see that you all have done things right and there’s enough room for this business for everyone in the US to do well. However, if we’re going to have any impact on the global industry, we’re going to have to work together.”

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