Texas Rancher Profits on Japanese Legacy : Agribusiness: Don Lively’s stockpile of semen from Wagyu cattle, the source of sweet-tasting Kobe beef, is estimated to be worth $2 million.
Their names were Fuji, Judo, Mazda and Ryusho. Before they died of old age years ago, they left behind a genetic legacy worth millions of dollars for cattle breeder Don Lively, one that the Japanese contend is a stolen national treasure.
The legacy is semen. The four Japanese bulls that provided it were brought to the United States in a shroud of secrecy 14 years ago.
Some people say the semen is a rare commodity that could revolutionize the beef industry in both countries.
Lively’s stockpile of semen from the famed Wagyu cattle (pronounced Wog-you), believed to be the only ones of the breed to leave their homeland, is estimated to be worth $2 million.
Cattlemen and agribusiness companies from around the world have come to Lively’s LoDo Ranch to buy some of the semen so they can start breeding their own herds of Wagyu.
The Wagyu’s tender, slightly sweet-tasting meat, called Kobe beef, is a delicacy that fetches up to $180 a pound in Japan.
The spindly legged and swaybacked beasts once only brought bewildered stares from U.S. breeders, who prefer stockier cattle.
Not only does Kobe beef taste better, however, but research from Texas A&M; University indicates that it is markedly lower in cholesterol than other beef.
Ever since Japan said it would lift beef import quotas by 1991, American cattlemen have hungrily eyed the Wagyu.
So have Japanese investors with vast holdings of land in the United States.
“They can’t increase cattle production in Japan; they don’t have the land,” Lively said.
He and his business partner, Rosebud rancher Fred Hildebrand, have sold hundreds of the semen samples, which are used to artificially inseminate cows, for about $1 million.
Each vial costs $250.
“People used to think I was crazy for having these cattle,” said Lively, 62.
The Japanese have always been fond of the cattle and reluctant to share the breed with the rest of the world. They have steadfastly refused to export them.
“You’d be classified as a traitor if you brought it out of Japan,” Lively said. “The Japanese are resentful that we have Wagyu cattle. Some of them won’t even admit these are Wagyu when we show the cattle to them.
“If you could raise Wagyu cattle here and be the first one to back into Japan with Kobe beef, you got yourself a market, be it a niche or the corner on a billion dollars. It’ll probably be a billion dollars.”
Lively and others in the beef industry also believe that U.S. breeders could reap huge profits off Wagyus in the domestic cattle market, where some Wagyu cattle have sold for $20,000 to $30,000 a head.
There are about 900,000 head of Wagyu in Japan today. Fewer than 60 purebreds exist in the United States. Lively and his partner own most.
The first four Wagyu bulls, Lively said, were brought to the United States by a Texas cattleman named Morris Whitney, with the help of a mysterious Japanese partner.
Whitney sold them to a Georgetown veterinarian.
Both tried in vain to seek investors so they could turn a profit on the cattle, but the ventures went bust. Lively said he and Hildebrand eventually ended up with the seemingly worthless Wagyu bulls.
Now their semen is worth a small fortune, and a smiling Lively refuses to eat any kind of beef other than the Kobe meat that he raises.
“Why would I do that?” he asked. “I’m already eating the finest beef around.”
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