Until the fancy cows come home — Devils Thumb aims to raise Wagyu cattle at ranch
August 6, 2013
As it embraces the trendy localized food movement, Devil's Thumb Ranch is looking to raise its own herd of the world's finest cattle. But swanky cows come with a first-class cost.
For the last two years, Devil's Thumb has featured Wagyu beef on its menus, a meat famed for its rich taste, extensive marbling and high price. But serving the beef wasn't enough. Devil's Thumb executives wanted a literal farm-to-table experience – or in this case, ranch-to-table. To take this extra step, the ranch leased the cattle from Emma Farms Cattle Co. in Basalt, bringing them up to the property each summer. While the herd nibbled the ranch's grass and drank from its streams during warmer months, it returned home to lower elevations once Grand County's infamous winter set in. But ranch visitors won't be able to see the leased Wagyu herd at the property this season. Instead, the ranch is looking to take its localized goals another step further by obtaining a Wagyu herd of its own.
"This year we're looking at a different option to get us to go fully independent, which is a process," said Sean Damery, vice president and general manager at Devil's Thumb.
Wagyu beef describes four breeds of Japanese cattle whose good genetics give them a high rate of marbling and low rate of saturated fat. As with most luxury foods, breeding, origin and bloodlines hold sway, complicating what restaurateurs and ranchers can call "pure." Kobe beef, for example, is a version of the Japanese black breed, but must come from a specific region in Japan to be called true "Kobe," much like sparkling wine must come from a specific region in France to be considered true champagne.
"You cut a piece of Kobe beef, it'll melt like butter on a table," said Devil's Thumb Executive Chef Evan Treadwell. "It's a pretty special cow."
Wagyu might be special, but it's not cheap. The animals were traditionally raised in Japan's rocky terrain with little space to roam. They're much smaller than typical American cattle, and the special care required to raise them demands a stiff price.
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"An Angus is twice the size and it takes a year to raise," Treadwell said. "A Wagyu is half the size and it takes three years to raise."
At Devil's Thumb, Wagyu steaks go for $12 an ounce, and a burger sells for just under $20. But Treadwell said the meat has such a rich, flavorful quality that most diners are satisfied with smaller portions.
"That's the benefit of the meat, and that's why we want to raise it. We believe it's the best beef in the world," he said.
Wagyu beef quickly became a hit at Devil's Thumb restaurants. It's now the only beef the ranch serves at its restaurants.
"We were trying to sell both Angus and Wagyu at first, but the demand for the Wagyu was so high that we just stopped selling anything else," Damery said.
American cattle farmers have received some flack recently for importing Japanese cows, breeding them with local Angus, then still pushing them as pure Wagyu or Kobe. The beef Devil's Thumb Ranch serves (and, until recently, the grazing cattle they leased) comes from Emma Farm's herd, which the farm says is 98 percent or higher purebred Wagyu.
"It's the bloodline that's important," Damery said. "Each steer you buy basically comes with birth paperwork. Every piece of birth certificate has to be traced back."
At press time, Emma Farms CEO and president Tom Waldeck was not available for comment on the purity of his animals. His cattle won six top three open breeding Wagyu livestock titles at the 2012 National Western Livestock Show and 30 top three titles in the 2013 show.
Although the ranch is looking to become an independent operation by running its own herd, Damery said they still maintain a close relationship with Emma Farms. Even after the ranch owns its own herd, it takes years before a new calf is ready to process.
Still, the ranch decided not to graze any of Emma Farms' stock on the ranch this summer, partly because Treadwell expects Devil's Thumb to begin operating its own herd sometime this year. But for now, the only Wagyu animal roaming the property is a young black male lovingly called "A Bull Named Sue." Devil's Thumb had originally asked breeders for a female, but it took staffers a while to notice there was a mix-up – its first resident Wagyu was actually male.
The cost associated with raising the prized animals has presented some challenges at Devil's Thumb, but Damery said the ranch is uniquely positioned for the operation. Not many luxury restaurants are set on properties with thousands of acres at their disposal. And few businesses have the ability to take a hit so they can sell better meat.
"Unfortunately, going pasture-to-table isn't as easy as it sounds, that's why nobody does it," he said. "But that's what we want to do – sell the best meat, given where we're at."