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Country World Staff Writer
Published in Country World's Special Beef Edition dated Sept. 18, 2008

When it comes to raising beef cattle, a variety of animal characteristics and qualities are important to a rancher. Nothing, however, is as important as the quality of the beef. In the United States, quality grades such as prime, choice and select reflect the flavor and tenderness of the meat and are primarily determined from carcass maturity and the amount of fat (i.e. marbling or intramuscular fat) within the meat.

“Prime beef is what everybody wants to eat. It’s very tender. Very tasty,” said Bubba Kay, owner of Kay Ranch near Manor.

For Kay, who has been in the cattle business for over 35 years, raising prime beef is his number one goal. To help achieve his goal, Kay chose the Wagyu breed. “They marble better than anything else in the world found so far,” Kay said. “The extremely high marbled beef, called Kobe beef, is what the white tablecloth restaurants want.”

According to Kay, his work with the breed began in 1978 when he met a man who had the first four bulls that were brought to the United States from Japan. Kay used the service of those bulls and started his own breeding program. In 1990, he sold his herd but five years later he was back working with the breed again when he became the ranch manager at the Harrell Ranch located outside of Austin. Together, Kay and ranch owner Sam Harrell established a herd of prime grade cattle. “We had about 550 momma cows. We did the whole thing from start to finish. Totally traceable,” Kay stated. “We put tags in their ears when they were little and kept everything on record. We could trace every mother cow and everything that she ever did and how good was the quality of her calves all the way through.” The ranch, he said, was even certified to ship to Europe.
“Very few people were certified at that time. We established that and then the highway came and condemned us.”

The highway that Kay is referring to is State Highway 130, a toll-way constructed in a 89-mile corridor east of Austin and right through Harrell Ranch. The closing of the ranch, however, did not stop Kay. He and his wife Donna, bought the ranch’s seed stock and continued to work with the breed. Today, Kay Ranch raises about 60 head of full blood Wagyu cattle alongside their Angus herd.

According to Kay, the Wagyu is a popular breed. As soon as they get old enough to sell, he said, “there’s somebody waiting to buy them. I just about sell them as fast as I can get them raised.”
When it comes to selling Wagyu cattle, Kay said the auction barn is not the place to go.
“There’s no market for it running it over scales because they are not a big animal and because they don’t look as pretty on the hooves,” Kay said. “It’s kind of a niche market where you can take an animal and get more for it than you can just running it over the scales. You have a market for them or you take them all the way to the rail.”

For those looking to improve their quality of beef, Kay said the Wagyu cattle can be crossed with other breeds. “What it does is, it just upgrades the other animals that you breed them to,” Kay said. “You can cross them with Angus and usually 80 to 90 percent of the offspring from that will be prime. I have people crossing them with Beefmasters and Brangus and they are getting choice and prime.”

Along with the quality of the beef, Kay also likes the breed’s calving ease.
“Those two things right there just make it real easy. You don’t have to worry about pulling calves out of heifers,” he said. “These cattle, typically crossed with an Angus, will have a 45 to 50 pound calf and that’s a nice, small calf.”

The cattle, he said, are also very fertile and feed efficient. “They are very feed efficient animals which is something that is extremely good to have nowadays with the high cost of feed,” Kay stated. “They don’t convert feed any better than other animals but they don’t need as much to grow. The feed efficiency is tremendous.” The cattle, he said, “do extremely well on just forage. Just hay and grass.”

When it comes to some of the breed’s other characteristics, there are two traits that Kay would like to change. “I would like to see them a little bigger and that’s what I’m breeding for. One of my main goals in breeding is trying to get the animal’s size a little bit better,” said Kay. “They are not the best milk cows either. They don’t produce a lot of milk. So we are working with those things.”

The work is a challenge he enjoys undertaking. “I like the challenge of taking this genetics and these genetics and crossing them to try to improve it. It takes a long time to breed an animal, grow it out. It’s a slow process. It’s not a job for anybody that doesn’t have a lot of patience.”
Over the years, he said, most of the work has been good. “The Wagyu cattle are very predictable in their marbling. If you take your time, they will do what you want them to do with the marbling.”
Patience seems to pay off. According to Kay, consumers are willing to pay as much as $90 to $110 a pound for the highly marbled Kobe-style beef.

“There’s a great demand for good beef out there and people don’t mind paying for it.”