MYERSTOWN, Pa. — No, they don’t get massages, and they aren’t fed beer as the stories go about the intimate care of the Wagyu in Japan.
However, at Spotlight Holsteins in Lebanon County, Pennsylvania, Wagyu is the beef-on-dairy crossbreeding fit, and the cattle are given the time they need to produce the outstanding beef characteristics the Wagyu are known for — doing so on a lower energy diet.
The whole thing started before 2020, the year Adam Light sold his 100-cow registered Holstein tiestall dairy herd in Jonestown and purchased the 240-cow robotic dairy farm and herd from Ralph Moyer in nearby Myerstown (above).
Today, Adam and his cousin Ben Light, a landscaper, are partners in Lightning Cattle Company.
They started with three Wagyu, two bulls and a heifer, purchased from the September 2018 dispersal through Hosking of the late Donald ‘Doc’ Sherwood’s Empire State herd he had bred over 17 years from imported genetics near Binghamton, New York. Doc Sherwood retired that year, and he and his herd were profiled in Farmshine (here)
Adam and Ben brought their investment home and had Zimmerman Custom Freezing collect the bulls. They also flushed the heifer for embryos.
Not only did they begin using those straws of Wagyu on some of Adam’s dairy cows, they also began making some available to other dairy farmers in return for first-dibs to buy the offspring, and they began leasing bulls to farms with beef cow-calf herds.
Today, they have two full-blooded Wagyu bulls, two full-blooded females, plus 34 crossbred animals in various stages of beef production, and they have sold almost a dozen finished beef.
“The key with this breed is to take your time. They need protein to grow, but on the energy side, they don’t need a whole lot. There’s no high energy diet in this. It’s really quite simple. Whatever the dairy heifers get is what the Wagyu crossbreds get, which is a kind of lower energy feed,” Adam explains.
The calves start in the nursery barn at his dairy, grouped with replacement heifers on automated Urban CalfMom feeders, where milk intakes can be customized. They also receive the same calf starter, calf grower and hay.
When they reach 400 to 500 pounds, the crossbreds are moved to Ben’s father’s crop and poultry farm near Jonestown, which is also home-base for Ben’s landscaping company.
There they become Ben’s responsibility until they reach 900 pounds on pasture with some supplemental forage as needed.
At around 900 pounds, the cattle come back to Adam’s dairy, where they are housed and fed the same mostly forage diet on the same steady growth plane of nutrition as the breeding age and bred heifers.
They finish at 1450 to 1500 pounds at about 26 months of age and are sold as beef quarters, halves and wholes from pre-orders, with the buyers paying the custom butcher for processing.
Like the Wagyu breed, Holsteins are slower to finish out. The difference is a straight Holstein needs a push with a high-energy diet to reach a higher quality grade, whereas the Wagyu crossbreds do it on lower energy feed.
“You really want to raise them 26 months, that’s longer than for other crossbreds. For us, it’s not a problem because we have the facilities, and we can feed them economically — right with our dairy animals — and have a more valuable beef animal at the end,” Adam explains.
After those initial years of lead time, Lightning Cattle Co. sold nine animals for beef in 2021. They expect to sell 10 in 2022, which should put them even on their original investment and the cost to make embryos to keep their Wagyu seed stock rolling forward, and they project to double the number sold in 2023 based on calves started in 2021.
What they sell is known as American Wagyu beef — mostly F1 Wagyu x Holstein with a few Wagyu x Angus and Wagyu x Jersey.
Having access to the crossbred calves from the dairy and beef herds that are using their Wagyu genetics helps ensure they can expand beef sales as demand grows, without tying up Adam’s dairy herd to make more crossbreds.
On his own cows, Adam turns to Wagyu after giving a cow two or three chances with Holstein. He’ll modify that decision based on visual appraisal and milk production, with an eye for the number and type of cows he needs and wants dairy replacements out of.
“They settle fast with Wagyu. The difference is evident under a microscope,” Adam reports.
Why Wagyu? Adam recalls his grandfather had some back in the early 2000’s. Half a dozen Wagyu cows and a bull were payment on a debt, which he added to the beef herd on his crop and livestock farm.
“No one really knew what they were back then,” Adam recalls, noting they aren’t beef show animals on-the-hoof. The outstanding meat characteristics are only seen on-the-rail as the flecks of fat are distributed evenly throughout the lean.
Almost 20 years later, Adam did the research. He learned about the breed from Japan, where there are different grades, names and regional identifiers for specific lines, and their tenderness transmissibility.
“The dairy industry was pretty ugly, and we were getting a bill instead of a check for our bull calves. Heifers weren’t worth much either, so we wanted to make a valuable animal to offset when other parts of the dairy industry are ugly,” Adam reflects back to 2018.
Wagyu won’t ring bells for average daily gain or fast finishing. While there are feedlots on the West Coast specifically dedicated to finishing F1 Wagyu dairy crosses, it’s different in the East and Midwest where they are mostly marketed into niche direct sales to consumers and restaurants.
Adam sees the Wagyu as a good fit for his dairy because he can optimize the assets he already has and feed them right with his heifers, instead of raising more heifers than his dairy needs.
“We’ve had different repeat customers tell us the big thing they noticed is the roasts are so much better, with no dry spots,” Adam relates. “I didn’t think there could be that much difference, but there really is, and it seems the Wagyu x Holstein is a great cross for that.”
Even in Japan, the dairy cross is sought as an economical option of their preferred beef — owing to this compatibility. Holsteins deposit marbling in a manner similar to Wagyu — but the Wagyu genetics put the quality into overdrive.
Selling by halves and quarters is less work than selling by beef cuts. Buyers are getting a range of items with some options to customize how they get their portion processed. They can do a simple cut-and-grind or ask for special order items such as bologna.
Lightning Cattle Co. has been approached by restaurants in the area, but to serve them, Adam and Ben would need to use a USDA-inspected plant, not a state-inspected custom butcher. USDA plants are few and far between and booked well into the future.
“We’ve had no issue selling the meat, and we’ve not done any advertising,” Ben notes. “We figured if we advertised too much, we might not be able to meet the demand. We’re taking it step by step.”
To price the quarters and halves, Adam believes in being fair and reasonable.
“We go off what the steers are selling for at the New Holland auction,” he says.
They look at the Choice and Prime steer price (not the dairy beef) and add a little to that for the Wagyu influence. The customer pays the liveweight price and the butcher’s fee.
Adam and Ben help buyers understand what they are getting and their cost per pound of cut-and-wrapped beef by converting it on a dressed basis for an informational estimate.
“It’s tough to create a market that doesn’t exist, but that’s what we’ve had to do,” Ben adds.
This is another reason the Lights have taken it step by step, giving themselves some growing room by spreading seed stock to other dairy farms for access to more calves.
Last fall (2021), they started their biggest group of crossbred calves that will finish out in 2023, double the number for 2022.
They have begun thinking about setting up a facebook page and had Lightning Cattle Co. T-shirts made, but they are still a bit cautious about advertising to be sure demand doesn’t get too far ahead of cattle coming up through.
The cousins like working with cattle, and they take pride in selling a finished product to others in their community. This also gives them opportunities for conversations with consumers about beef, dairy, and farming in general.
“Some people have heard of Wagyu beef from Japan. Some have heard you could pay $200 for a fancy 12-ounce steak, and some people don’t know much about it at all,” says Ben about the learning curve and the way crossbreeding makes this beef more economically accessible.
“What people really like is the idea of buying beef from farms, and that gets them interested in trying it,” he adds.
That’s the window of opportunity for the quality of the beef to sell itself into the future.
“It has been fun,” Adam admits. “It’s something different, and we don’t know where it will take us.”