Farm-to-Table: Raising 'the best beef in the world'

Feb 27, 2020

Donuts, chicken wings and fish frys are certainly popular in Buffalo. But residents also have an appetite for a variety of locally grown healthy foods. WBFO's Farm-to-Table series is featuring several entrepreneurs in the growing industry, including a woman raising a special breed of beef with proven health benefits.

WBFO News stopped by the Maple Row Farm on Salt Road in Clarence recently to learn more about Wagyu beef.   

Maple Row Farm, Salt Road, Clarence
Credit Chris Caya/WBFO News

"So we're headed to the back of the property where we keep the cattle. The horses reside in the front part of the property," said owner Pam Armstrong.

Armstrong says she wasn't happy with the quality of beef she was buying at local stores, so she decided to use some of the family farm to raise her own beef.  
"When I looked at the investment in starting this business, I thought wow that's going to be really hard to recoup that investment so I'm going to have a niche breed or a specialized breed of cattle to help me recoup that investment. So I decided on the best beef cattle in the world,  which would be Wagyu." 

It's a Japanese breed, Armstrong says, known for their intramuscular marbling.
"Many people look at the beef and say, 'Wow there's a lot of fat in that.' But, strangely enough, it's healthy fat. So it has a higher concentration of monounsaturated, which is the good fat, compared to the polysaturated or bad fats," Armstrong said.   

In fact, its popularity is largely due to its high level of fat.  
"It gives it the flavor, it gives it the tenderness and the juiciness. It's unlike any other eating experience you've ever had eating one of those steaks," Armstrong said.  
Wagyu also has a high level of stearic acid which, she says, has been shown to raise HDL or good cholesterol and lower LDL or bad cholesterol.

Maple Row Farm owner, Pam Armstrong says, she enjoys giving her Wagyu beef cattle "individualized attention."
Credit Chris Caya/WBFO News

"It actually has three times the amount of stearic acid as salmon and one and half times the amount of stearic acid as chicken. So it's actually a very healthy beef. You don't want to eat as much as you would of normal beef, you eat smaller amounts of it, but it's not only delicious, it's good for you," she said.

But it's also pricey. Armstrong says that's due in part because in the mid-1990s Japan stopped exporting the animals.
"We're basically working with those genetics, maybe two hundred and some animals that were shipped over here. So their, the genetics the bloodlines are expensive."  

Armstrong's cattle are 100 percent fullblood, DNA-verified and registered with the American Wagyu Association. And, she says, they are pasture-raised and require feeding longer than commercial cattle.
"They don't really put down their intramuscular marbling till after 20-22 months of age which is the point most cattle are already harvested. So we feed them out to 30 months of age. Over that time they eat three to four tons of grain and hay. So you can see how the costs build up," Armstrong said.  

But she enjoys growing her own food.
"Kind of a strange term, but you know, kind of brings people back to the land so to speak. And when people grow their own vegetables or raise their own animals they find it very satisfying. Also you usually end up with a better quality product. It tastes better," she said.

Armstrong says her Wagyu are pasture raised. She says part of the equation to getting really good quality beef is keeping their stress level down.
Credit Chris Caya/WBFO News

Her retail customers are mostly local. But Armstrong says she's not looking to expand her herd beyond about 18 animals because she likes to give them "individualized attention" on a daily basis.  
"They all get groomed regularly and I can kind of watch and monitor what their needs are. And it keeps the stress level down and you get a much better product," Armstrong said.  

Robert Williams, executive director of the American Wagyu Association says, the industry has seen substantial growth year after year.
"The acceptance in the industry particularly from the retailers and chefs in restaurants, fine dining restaurants and so forth have been phenomenal. You know, I've worked various other breeds, but it's unlike what I've experienced in other breeds in terms of that level of interest, you know, from the retail and chef side of the equation," Williams said.    

However, Armstrong admits, "it's not for everybody." Her New York Wagyu steaks run about $19 a pound and tenderloins up to $60 a pound.
"It is expensive. So people can't always afford it. The ground beef is somewhat affordable. We sell our ground beef for $10 a pound which is pretty comparable to the grass-fed beef that you find at grocery stores. But the flavor you just can't beat," Armstrong said.