Raising the Steaks
Several Alabama farmers are setting the bar high for beef raised in our state
No matter which area of Alabama you call home, there’s probably a cattle farmer nearby. According to the Alabama Cattleman’s Association, cattle are found in every county in the state. They might be part of a herd several hundred head strong. They might have only a handful of hooved companions whose main purpose is looking pretty in a small pasture and serving as its low-tech lawn mower.
From tiny farms to cattle raising on a grand scale, you’ll find it all in Alabama, and it brings a serious boost to our still agriculture-driven economy, with an annual economic impact of $2.5 billion. And the industry is on the upswing, according to Dr. Billy Powell, executive director of the Alabama Cattlemen’s Association. “On January 1 of 2016, there were 1.25 million head of beef cattle and calves in the state,” he said. “That’s a 4 percent increase over 2015.”
Among that massive number is a select group of cattle, a special breed that’s gaining popularity. “It’s the best steak you’ll ever put in your mouth,” said Rob Whitesell of Whitesell Farms in Vinemont, Ala. He was bragging about the taste and tenderness of wagyu beef, the breed he’s raising on grass-covered hills in Cullman County. His is quite a boast, but it’s a claim that has sound science and the praise of legions of steak lovers around the globe behind it.
From Japan to Alabama
The wagyu cattle breed originated in Japan, and the cows were once used as working animals. Today, they are best known as the source of famed Kobe beef, a “brand” of beef that comes from wagyu cattle raised in the Kobe region of Japan using very specific techniques and standards. (Some Kobe ranchers are rumored to massage their cows.)
While only this beef can be called “Kobe,” all wagyu cattle share a genetic trait – a high concentration of unsaturated fat interspersed among its muscle tissue – that makes their meat stand out from other types of beef. “Wagyu’s calling card is the kind and amount of its marbling,” Whitesell says. “They have a very specific fat profile; it has a very low melting point.” This gives wagyu beef its deep, rich beef flavor that’s coupled with a soft, buttery texture. “It’s a real melt-in-your-mouth experience,” he says.
The tech industry brought Whitesell, a Florida native, to Huntsville in 1990 where he works for a software company. In 1998, he decided to move his family to the country, and ended up buying what is now Whitesell Farms. He started farming cattle – while still working in Huntsville – in 1999, but only got into raising wagyu six years ago, when he began breeding some wagyu bulls with his commercial heifers. His focus moved to raising full-blood wagyu (while still growing some of the cross breeds) in 2014. It started when he changed his business model to sell directly to consumers.
“One year, we started selling meat to some family and friends, and it worked so well, I decided that was how I wanted to run my business,” he says. Making that move meant he’d be in the “custom beef” market, and if you’re going to grow custom beef, why not go with the best? “That’s wagyu,” he says.
Several members of his herd are now registered with the American Wagyu Association, and most of Whitesell Farms’ wagyu beef is sold directly to customers, although he is experimenting with wholesale to markets. “Our primary market is our repeat clientele who buy a side of beef at a time,” he says. “We’re currently selling to an independent grocery in Huntsville, too, though, and we’ll see how that goes.”
Farther south, Andy Tipton has been raising his wagyu cattle on his farm, Wagyu of Alabama, in Sardis, near Selma, since 2009. He’s been around farming all his life, and earned a master’s degree in animal science with a concentration on cattle from Auburn University. After farming commercial cattle for more than a decade, he started researching ways to get more money out of each acre in less time. The answer was to produce a premium product, but Tipton had never even heard of wagyu before 2008.
Then his brother ate an amazing steak. “He is one of those people with very discriminating tastes, and he had a wagyu steak out in Colorado that he was raving about,” Tipton says. His brother’s description sparked his interest, and the more he learned, the more he liked the idea of raising some. “I knew it would be a new thing here,” he says. “Everyone has heard of Angus beef; there are 30 million Angus cows in the United States.” There are only 7,000 full-blood wagyu. The price of buying a whole herd of full-blood wagyu was too high, so Tipton, like Whitesell, created his herd by “breeding up,” which takes some time. He now has 25 calves that will be harvested next year; his goal annual harvest is 50 cows.
While the basics of cattle farming remain the same across breeds, working with wagyu requires a little more time and technical skill, particularly the selection process for continuation of the herd. “We ultrasound our females to see the fat in their muscle so we can quality grade them and then decide which ones to breed,” he says.
Demand for custom beef is growing
He doesn’t use antibiotics or steroids on his wagyu. He also takes care to treat them right. “They have a nice disposition; they’re very docile,” he says, “so we are always very calm around them and careful not to stress them out. That can affect the meat.” Whitesell’s wagyu are also free of antibiotics, except in rare cases when they’re needed for medical treatment, and none of the animals he’s currently selling have been treated with antibiotics.
Like Whitesell, Tipton sells the majority of his wagyu beef direct, mostly working in quarters and halves, although he does sell ground beef and individual steaks at the EastChase Farmer’s Market on Saturdays in the summer and early fall in Montgomery.
He’s got a few Montgomery chefs chomping at the bit to serve his steaks, too. Look for Tipton’s wagyu on the menu at the Vintage Year. Finding folks to buy his beef is no issue; he currently can’t keep up with demand. When he is able to expand his production, he hopes to take website orders and ship his wagyu all over the country. “We’ve already done a bit of that,” he said. “We’ve sent our beef to Texas and Oregon.”
You can find out more about Whitesell Farms at www.whitesellfarms.com
You can find out more about Wagyu of Alabama at wagyuofalabama.com