A Look Inside an American Wagyu Ranch

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by: ricemonkee

Northeast of Mendocino National Forest with breathtaking views of Mt. Shasta lies the 7000 acres of Masami Cattle Ranch. On our bucket list was to visit a wagyu cattle ranch in Japan. With the global pandemic and limited travel we were very fortunate to discover this Japanese American Issei (first generation) ranch in Northern California.

Brief History

In the late 1980’s, a Japanese cattle rancher named Masami Ishida relocated to rural California and purchased 6500 acres of land. This is where he launched Masami Ranch. The idea was to replicate the same style of operational ranching traditions done in Japan. With the abundance of land, Ishida-san was able to create an all natural program involving open pasture raised wagyu cattle. Masami passed away in 2012, but his legacy continues to reflect in a world class cattle ranching operation.

front view of a wagyu cow in pasture at Masami Cattle Ranch

Living in Colorado for many years, you often smell the methane from the cows even 50 miles away. When driving into Masami Cattle Ranch, the first thing that you notice is — the lack of smell.

Masami Ranch is a vertically integrated business that mates and births cattle. They have a full feed lot that is home to bovine (wagyu) guests from Hawaii, Oregon and California. There are also cattle from the famous Nakagawa Cattle Ranch which produces some of the best wagyu in the U.S. After a year and a half in the feed lots, Masami cattle are humanely processed at their facility in Southern Oregon. After which, product is transported down to Bay Area customers.

Pure-blood wagyu cow

Yosinori Kanda

We were able to catch up with Yosinori “Nori” Kanda who is the ranch manager at Masami. For the last 16 years, he has dedicated his life seven days a week. His singular responsibility is to feed and care for over 3000 cattle during each life stage. Nori-san was born and raised in the bustling city of Osaka which arguably is the top food Mecca in Japan. His grandfather was a retired cattle rancher on a small scale with three wagyu bulls in Japan. Nori left Osaka to study agriculture in Illinois. During his time there he discovered his passion for animal husbandry working with Angus cattle and Berkshire pigs.

MASAMI RANCH CATTLE

We learned a little about the cattle business where quality meets price. If you want to learn more about wagyu cattle read our article about Visiting Kobe.

If you use only one wagyu bull to mate, the success rate is only about 90%. However, if you place two bulls with the same amount of cows they will compete. Two of these bulls will service as many as 40 cows in a month with a 100% success rate.

Wagyu Bulls

Masami has between 50-60 full blood wagyu bulls on the ranch. In addition, the there are 300 heads of full blood wagyu cows. Two of these bulls will service as many as 40 cows in a month with a 100% success rate. Not bad boys. Unfortunately, the more cows serviced does shorten the life span of a bull. Still not a bad life. Bulls will typically live for about 5 years with a max life span of 15 years. Cows average 7-8 years, but may live as long as 20 years.

The Bull Pen

We visited one of the “bull pens” which was in a covered lot with views of green meadows and snow-capped mountains. It was a sizable area close to three acres with bulls lounging around and eating. This was definitely a stress-free environment. The dozen or so bulls in this particular pen were impressive and very curious. Apparently, they enjoy human attention and having their picture taken.

Below, we break down the different certified designations of cattle groups raised by Masami Ranch. At Masami, they raise cattle from Angus all the way to full-blood wagyu. Their organizational system is very good because each type has an area spread out through the nearly 7000 acres.

Types of cattle on Masami Ranch

Angus – 100%

F1 – 50% Crossbred Wagyu. The offspring of mating a full-blood wagyu with regular cows such as Angus in this case or Holstein.

F2 – 75% Crossbred Wagyu. The offspring of mating a full-blood wagyu with an F1 cow.

F3 – 87% Crossbred Wagyu. The offspring of mating a full-blood wagyu with an F2 cow.

F4 – 93.75% Purebred Wagyu. The offspring of mating a full-blood wagyu with an F3 cow.

Full Blood Wagyu – 100% Wagyu. The result of a full-blood wagyu bull and cow.

Life Cycle of Wagyu Cattle

A typical day for Nori starts with feeding which occurs twice a day. He spends most of the day checking the health of the cattle, watering and tagging. The best part he says is catching the baby calves. We can see why, they are very adorable. As we approached, there was a definitive combination of curiosity and weariness. This inquisitive little one followed us around.

Mother cows birth their own calves. On rare occasion, the ranch hands may need to assist. All cows, bulls and calves are checked and accounted for each day. The baby calves start their lives on a diet of mother’s milk. They spend their days roaming through hundreds of acres of green grass. Grain feed starts at around two months to prepare the calves for the feed lots. But, the first nine months are spent in pasture with the mother cows. After that, they spend close to 26-28 months in a designated feed lot.

The superior quality of wagyu beef

We have heard stories of wagyu cattle rearing involving daily massages with beer or sake added to feed. There are different techniques used throughout the world. Wagyu are a high quality heritage breed that are primarily a product of good genetics. In the early 1900’s cross-breeding with foreign species ceased in order to keep the bloodlines pure. Japanese wagyu breeding is highly selective and based on genetic testing which is regulated. In addition, wagyu feed is allocated by the government. The main feed components of barley, wheat, corn and soybean carry a high cost with limited supply.

What do they feed Masami Wagyu cattle?

According to Nori, feed does have an influence on the quality. He believes that it has a direct effect on the fattiness of the beef and the taste of the meat. In the years prior to COVID, he would take two trips a year to Japan to learn about feeding and care techniques. He started the day by patiently explaining the different types of feed used for the F1-F4 and full-blood wagyu cattle.

The secrets behind the actual ingredients are the proprietary ratios used in the recipes to feed the different cattle. Note: These are feed ingredients for wagyu while more cost effective silage is used for the Angus cattle.

Feed Ingredients

Distillers’ dried grain with solubles (DDGS) are a ground dried corn by-product from Nebraska created from the extraction of ethanol. This is used in feed for younger cows to provide protein. Rolled corn which has been steamed and crushed comes from Nebraska.

Alfalfa in combination with regular hay is a great addition to cow feed. It provides protein and is easier to digest than hay.

Wheat Mill Runs are a by-product of flour production. They create energy for the cattle due to a highly digestible fiber which is also great for their skin. As part of the feed, they contribute protein, minerals and fiber.

Almond Hulls are a by-product normally disposed of. Disposal is costly and contributes to air pollution, thus making this an ideal product for cross utilization. See more below on sustainable practices. According to P.H. Robinson (2017), “Almond hulls are a dairy feedstuff with an overall nutritional value equal to mid-grade alfalfa hay which can be included in diets of dairy cows at levels as high as 20% of diet dry matter with little or no negative impact on animal performance.”

Barley helps with protein and energy.

Is there sake or beer used with the cattle?

We asked the question regarding the practice of alcohol being used as feed. Nori told us that they experimented with sake in the past, but it did not work for them. He explained that the fermented sake in the manure attracted a lot of flies. So, they stick with the traditional feed.

Are the olive wagyu the real deal?

According to some, the “olive wagyu” produce the best beef in the world. Competition in Japan over the best wagyu is intense. In our experience, it is nearly impossible to disseminate the best of the best. Nori’s opinion is that only a small amount of olive by-product is actually fed to these cattle. However, he believes that it does improve the flavor of the meat on a small scale.

What sustainable practices does Masami Ranch follow?

Getting to the ranch was a five hour trek north along the main interstate through rural California. A lot of what you see is mostly open fields used for agriculture and ranching. As we got within 8 minutes of the Masami Ranch entrance, there was a remarkable change in the color of the grass. It literally transformed from brown to a sea of lush green. At the time, we did not realize the scope of the ranch in terms of size. But, for some reason we knew this oasis of open range belonged to Masami.

We posed the question to Nori about how they are able to maintain such beautiful grass. He explained that during the summer months, it does turn brown in some parts like anywhere else. However, the key to maintenance is composting the cow manure. The composted manure is used as natural fertilizer. It also helps the soil where the grass is grown to retain more moisture. This translates to less water usage. In addition, the composted manure releases a lot less greenhouse gas into the environment. Nori drove us up to see the composting pile (see below). Surprisingly, there was only a slight smell, but not that bad.

front view of a manure composting pit at Masami Cattle Ranch

What is significant about Masami Ranch?

The first thing is that anyone would be awestruck by the cleanliness and the lack of cow smell. Living in Colorado for many years, you often smell the methane from the cows even 50 miles away. When driving into Masami Cattle Ranch, the first thing that you notice is — the lack of smell. Nori told us that they clean their pens frequently and the feed they use is also a factor.

The entire program is self-contained and efficient. It is one of the few operations that raise cattle, acts as a feed lot, processes, packs and ships. Visually the Masami cattle looked very relaxed with views better than my suburban backyard.

The ranch follows the philosophy of doing things the right way. The cattle are raised in a a natural stress-free environment. Masami does not use any antibiotics or hormones at any life stage. Land stewardship is practiced at a high level with seemingly the least amount of environmental impact possible.

How good is Masami Ranch beef?

The direct supply area for Masami includes a handful of distributors in the Bay Area. So, a couple of days later we went in search of the end product. We located a butcher in San Francisco that carries Masami Beef. They had a decent variety including ribeye, which is my favorite cut. However, I wanted to try the more lean NY strip which is my second favorite. This was actually an F1 grade, but very fresh with a bright red color and significant white marbling. I was excited that we finally got a chance to try some. Read more about this in our post on “Why wagyu beef is better“.

The day that we spent on the ranch was very informative. I am happy for the experience because the best part is actually documenting first hand where food comes from. I love the dedication of craft beef ranchers like Nori Kanda. There is such a deep respect for the animals and the land. The best food is sourced from quality products with minimal processing from start to finish. If you want to learn more about Masami watch this video.

Masami Cattle Ranch

18250 Rancho Tehama Rd, Corning, CA 96021


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