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Once considered an oddity, Wagyu is now the fastest-growing breed in America

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

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 (AWA) President Pete Eschelman, the panel consisted of Jerry Reeves, PhD and retiree from the Washington State University Animal Sciences Department; Ray Record, owner of AgriService International and Dr. Albert Wood, oncology and hematology physician.

The first Wagyu

According to 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 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,” 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 the market.” 

Reeves noted he had never heard of Wagyu. 

“I saw things I couldn’t imagine. At the slaughter plants, the cattle and carcasses were just phenomenal,” he said. “We didn’t know it at the time, but there were already four bulls in the U.S.”

At the time, the Speaker of the U.S. 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 U.S.

“The U.S. was the only place in the world that could get them out,” Reeves recalled.

The plan was to cross Wagyu genetics with cattle in the U.S. to produce a 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 said.

This changed in a big way in 2003 when bovine spongiform encephalopathy was diagnosed in the U.S. 

“All of the meat going to Japan stopped,” Reeves recalled. “There was no place for it to go except back into the U.S.” 

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

“Most of this meat was sold for 60 cents on the dollar. Nobody wanted it,” Reeves noted.

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

“This changed the whole system,” Reeves explained. “We went from trying to be an exporter to consuming our own meat. Basically, we probably have the best market for Wagyu beef in America in the world right now.”

But this was a difficult period for the Wagyu breed. 

“We had contracted 2,000 calves and had to come up with the money to pay 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 it was the second-best thing to ever happen,” he said. “The first was bringing in the new genetics.”

Wagyu association formed

The AWA was formed in 1990, according to Ray Record, who was vice president of operations at Granada Land and Cattle of 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 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 breeders needed an actual association, not a group owned and led by one person.

“So, Lively agreed we’d form an association which would get the thing off the ground. 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 U.S. 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. 

“This had all of the information on all of the cattle that had been recorded up to this point in time,” he said. “So, Jim and I spent a lot of time going through and 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

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 admitted. “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, Wood’s Red Wagyu enterprise was broke and he returned to practicing medicine. This changed in 2023 when he again became a Wagyu breeder.

“The future looks very bright for Wagyu cattle,” he said, remarking on changes that have taken place in the full-blood Red Wagyu business and the remarkable acceptance of Wagyu beef in America. 

The 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 you all have done things right and there’s enough room for this business for everyone in the U.S. to do well. However, if we’re going to have any impact on the global industry, we’re going to have to work together.”

Burt Rutherford is the director of content and senior editor of BEEF Magazine and can be reached by visiting This article was originally published by the American Wagyu Association on Jan. 2.

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