Here's The Beef

Vermont Farm Raising Japanese Wagyu Cattle
by Nicole S. Colson
Published 2/4/12 in The Keene Sentinel

SPRINGFIELD, Vt. — In Japan, a rare breed of cattle is considered a national treasure. Here, among the rolling hills of Vermont, a local farm owner is hoping to elevate her herd to the same status.

Dr. Sheila C. Patinkin raises wagyu, which are Japanese beef cattle. In the culinary world, the meat wagyu produces is more commonly-known as Kobe beef — named for the Japanese island on which the animals are bred. All Kobe beef comes from wagyu cattle, but wagyu cattle are raised in other areas of Japan. Legends surrounding the cattle include that they are given beer and regular massages in Japan to keep them calm.

“It’s the caviar of the beef world,” Patinkin said of wagyu. You might see it on a menu at a fine restaurant in Boston or New York City. But while an 8-ounce Angus filet would run you about $35, the same cut of wagyu would be around $100.

That’s because the fat laced through its muscles – called marbling – gives it an intense depth of flavor and makes it tender enough to cut with a fork. Wagyu cattle were first raised as draft animals, and their fat was a source of quick energy needed for pulling heavy loads. The quality of wagyu is so superior to anything native to the U.S. that there isn’t any U.S.-based rating system that goes high enough to classify it. On the Japanese scale, the best U.S. prime beef only scores a five or a six out of 12.

It’s also healthy: the mono-unsaturated (good) to saturated fat (bad) ratio is higher in wagyu than in any other beef. It’s also high in Omega-3 fatty acids – the compound also found in salmon that is beneficial to health.

Patinkin is owner of Spring-Rock Farm, so named because the 100 acres it encompasses straddles the towns of Springfield and Rockingham.

She grew up in Springfield and moved back to her hometown in 2006, when she bought the farm. She retired last year from her career as a pediatrician in Chicago. She also has a background in genetics, an area she researched when she was in medical school. Her cousin raises wagyu in Montana, and inspired her to start raising her own.

She purchased 20 wagyu embryos from a breeder in Washington, which produced 11 calves. She now has 54 “full-bloods” – 100 percent wagyu – and she’s aiming for 75. Jersey surrogate cows birth the calves.

The scarcity of the breed means a full-blooded wagyu heifer fetches between $5,000 and $13,000. By comparison, an Angus would go for between $2,000 and $3,000.

Today, the entire U.S. wagyu herd is just about 3,000 to 5,000 head, owned by 200 registered breeders nationwide (compared to an Angus herd of roughly 30 million)

The U.S. wagyu herd began with 44 head of cattle imported from Japan between 1974 and 1994. Since then, Japan has barred all export of wagyu cattle or genetics, cutting of the supply. Patinkin also plans to sell wagyu embryos.

Patinkin is one of only two wagyu breeders in the Northeast – the other is in South Royalton, Vt.

You wouldn’t know their value to look at them – although striking with their dark-colored fur, they look similar to other cattle breeds. But wagyu are known for having a more gentle temperament than Angus, making them ideal for a farmer to raise. However, they are more sensitive to weather conditions than Angus, which is why Patinkin arranges for calves to be born in spring and summer.

The animals are pasture-fed using a rotational grazing method that increases feeding efficiency and manages the health of the field naturally.

Patinkin’s herd manager, Phillip Ranney, worked on his family’s dairy farm in Westminster West before coming to work at Spring-Rock Farm. Their mission is to build a profitable community in and around Vermont by helping others interested in raising or cross-breeding wagyu. “Our goal is to be a small farm forever,” Patinkin said.

It’s also to create a local market for the product. Five of her wagyu steers are ready for slaughter next month. A 1,500-pound steer yields about 400 to 500 pounds of beef.

Customers can order from her directly, and she has been marketing the beef to high-end restaurants, including area ski resorts and inns.

Patinkin said a chef – whether at a restaurant in New York City or Vermont – has to be creative in serving wagyu because its rarity means large quantities can’t be served at once. A tasting menu, she said, is an optimal way to present it, perhaps including a combination of a piece of brisket, hangar steak and tenderloin. “It’s not like your usual grocery-store commodity,” she said.