Wagyu deliver specialty market for Alta. ranch

The Brant Lake Cattle Co. has been involved with the Japanese breed since it imported semen in the early 1990s

HIGH RIVER, Alta. — Since Michelle Ball launched the Brant Lake Wagyu brand in 2012, sales have increased each year.

The specialty beef is found in grocery stores, 60 restaurants and direct sales, including some exports.

“I’ve barely touched the Ontario and Quebec marketplace so there is definitely room for growth,” she said.

Social media has helped get the farm’s name noticed.

“I am picking up a new buyer or new distributor probably once a week, which is encouraging,” she said.

From a storefront operation in High River, Michelle said they work to sell every part of the carcass.

“You have to get a return on the whole carcass so that is where you bring in the value-added,” she said.

Besides steaks, roasts and ribs, the company works with processors to develop gourmet hotdogs, smokies, jerky, beef strips, meat balls, ground beef patties, smaller muscle cuts and possibly a protein bar.

Brant Lake Cattle Co., a family run business, has been involved with the Japanese breed since Jack and Carol Ball imported semen in the early 1990s.

They were Simmental breeders and testing this new breed from Japan was a leap of faith.

“Once we started eating the meat, I thought this was the right thing to do for the beef industry,” Jack said.

It has taken time but now Jack’s son, Jeff, has about 2,000 crossbred Wagyu on feed at the 15,000 head lot at Brant, Alta. The business needs more animals and will work with interested producers.

“We are looking for good ranchers,” said Jeff Ball.

“Brant Lake is a vehicle for them to get connected to the consumer. There are a lot of primary producers who are tired of the old paradigms of doing business through the auction markets, through the cattle buyers,” he said.

Interested producers would have to join the verified beef program or another third party certification for quality and health assurance. The cattle do not receive growth hormones but are treated with antibiotics if necessary for health and welfare.

Between 40 and 80 cattle are processed at Canadian Premium Meats, a federally inspected facility in Lacombe, Alta.

The Balls are raising halfboods derived from an Angus-Wagyu cross.

Wagyu bulls bred to heifers result in a small calf of around 75 pounds. Some pounds are lost at weaning time but the premium price for the calves makes up for that.

At 500 lb., the calves go on an extended feeding period of up to 600 days on a moderate energy ration to develop the plentiful marbling and thicker fat cover.

The steers finish at about 1,700 lb. and the heifers weigh in at 1,500 lb.

Under the traditional processing system they would be discounted for being overfat and overweight, said Ball.

The family works with producers like Ken Tew of Sutton Creek Cattle at Baker City, Oregon, who has maintained a Wagyu herd since 1999.

He got involved in the breed by accident when a friend asked him to look after his herd. He thought the calves looked like roping steers but found the Angus cross produced high quality beef that graded USDA Prime or High Choice with a yield grade one or two.

“It was not what we were traditionally raised to look at.”

“We sold pounds of beef rather than carcass quality,” he said.

In the beginning, he sold bulls to commercial producers for $1,000 each with a money back guarantee for calving ease.

“They see carcass quality as a bonus,” he said.

Last year, he sold 213 Wagyu bulls and almost all went to commercial customers.

Besides convincing producers to try an F1 Wagyu cross, the Balls work with chefs who know how to cook a specialty product.

“The thing that has been really beneficial has been this whole group of chefs that have come up. They have been all over the world and they know all the products,” Ball said.

“A lot of them are familiar with Wagyu product or octopus or duck breasts,” he said.

Stephen Deere, owner of Modern Steak in Calgary, has been connected with the family from the beginning. His restaurant has been named the best steak house in Calgary three years running and offers locally produced beef including Wagyu, grassfed and traditional steaks.

A six ounce flat iron Wagyu steak sells for $39 and the prices increase from there for premium cuts.

People will pay more for a good steak, especially for special occasions.

“When there is a special product on the menu people are willing to pay a premium for something different they haven’t had before or something they have heard about,” he said.

He is critical of the Canadian grading system because it is not designed to evaluate specialty products like Wagyu or grass-fed beef. About 80 percent of the Balls’ Wagyu carcasses grade 80 percent Canada Prime but the marbling score is even higher than what that classification recognizes.

“It would help the producers, it would help the end users because it is like saying a car is a car but it would be like saying a Ferrari is the same as a Chevy,” he said.

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