OSGOODE — The most discerning beef buyers have begun beating a path to an Eastern Ontario dairy farm to satiate their taste for full-blooded Wagyu meat that cuts like butter and costs $250 per 10-lb box. While the beef breed was made famous in Kobe, Japan, this 40-head herd is very much a product of the main business at Velthuis Farms: The operation’s plentiful Holstein milk cows carried all but one of the purebred Wagyus to term as surrogate mothers.
For upmarket foodies, “when you say ‘Wagyu,’ they say ‘where’?” farm co-owner Steven Velthuis said, smiling as he showed off the collection of black beef animals that trace back to a single pedigreed female they bought in Vermont for $18,000 U.S. four years ago. Velthuis co-owns the operation with his brother, Paul.
An award-winning Holstein breeder, the Velthuises know well the art of flushing multiple embryos from a genetically superior female bovine for implantation into other cows. They have an on-farm flush facility — which includes IVF —for just that purpose. They flushed 120 embryos from that first Wagyu female after impregnating the animal with imported — and costly — Wagyu semen from Australia. (Japan no longer allows exports of Wagyu breeding stock or semen as the breed is considered a national treasure.) Half of the resulting embryos went to a Quebec man who split the purchase of the initial cow with Velthuis.
The remaining embryos yielded 40 pregnancies in the Velthuis Holstein herd. Only now are those Wagyu births reaching the 30-months-plus age range necessary to achieve the extreme, intramuscular marbling for which the breed is known — and highly sought after. The marbling comes from fat, but it’s a juicy, omega-rich fat with a lower melting temperature, Velthuis said.
“And the fat is good for you,” he added, noting that Wagyu is lower in cholesterol than even chicken and fish. “It’s one of the healthiest meats you can eat.”
It’s also admittedly costly. Velthuis was inspired to jump into Wagyu production after seeing a single 8 oz. steak listed at $450 on the menu of an upscale Toronto restaurant. “I said, I gotta get into this.” In a dairy industry with an excess of calves thanks to sexed semen technology, impregnating milk cows with beef genetics to produce crossbred offspring with more meat value was already commonplace.
Velthuis took it to the next level by having his Holsteins carry purebred beef calves of the most expensive beef breed on the planet. The Velthuises believe they are one of the few in Ontario doing so. There might be two or three other conventional breeders in the province.
Velthuis, his brother Paul, and their sons work together in their new endeavour. They sell the beef on-farm in 10-lb and 15-lb boxes. A box includes 15% “tier-one” prime cuts like striploin, ribeye and tenderloin, plus an equal amount of second-tier cuts such as ribs. Ground beef makes up the remaining 50 % or 60 % of the box contents.
“The price per box is the same with or without the ground beef inside it,” Velthuis explained. He noted that the ratio of box contents mirrors the percentages found on the actual beef carcass. A Wagyu burger is something special, he pointed out, a delicacy to be enjoyed with “a premium beer.”
The cuts are all vacuum-packed to ensure the special product is visible to potential customers. A local abattoir, Henderson Meats, handles the butchering and packaging, “which we’re happy with,” he said.
The new enterprise has barely begun. Velthuis has slaughtered one animal so far, with plans to go forward with processing two per month.
And please don’t confuse this 100% Wagyu beef with the “American Wagyu,” which is normally cross-bred between Angus and Wagyu, he said.
“If the market ramps up, production will increase as demand requires,” said Steven’s 24-year-old son Brendan Velthuis. He and his cousins enjoy dealing with customers as well as managing online marketing.
Raising a Wagyu to perfection also means feeding the animal properly. To get the full marbling effect, the breed requires extra nutrition in their final four months of life. Steven Velthuis observed that it’s always better to hold off sending the animal to slaughter if it needs more time to fatten up. Born smaller than other beef breeds, Wagyu are known to be slower growing than traditional breeds, reaching a full size of about 1,400 lb.
For Velthuis, the endeavour is all about finding new and fun challenges on the farm — established by his parents in 1959 — as well as keeping the next generation interested in the possibilities. In this case, the challenge involves finishing Wagyu as well as the originators of the breed. “The Japanese have mastered it, and it’s up to us to educate ourselves to try and be that good.”