Wagyu beef is among the most sought-after cuts of beef in the world. The meat is so well-marbled, tender, and rich that it can be sold for as much as $500 per pound. Dan Morgan hoped that would be the case when he brought one of America’s first Wagyu herds back from Japan to his family’s ranch in Burwell, NE, in 1992.
It’s safe to say, however, he was more optimistic than confident; so worried was he about his brother Ronnie’s reaction to seeing the thinner cattle that he unloaded the bulls in the dark of night. “I had a hell of a battle with my brother,” Dan said with a laugh. “They were not particularly attractive cattle at that time. That was 25 years ago. He thought I was smoking something other than Marlboro.”
But, as he would with so many others over the years, Dan won Ronnie over with the incredible buttery flavor of Wagyu. The meat has a much higher intramuscular fat content than traditional beef, and that fat has a lower melting point. These factors combine to give wagyu a buttery, melt-in-your-mouth texture that now has diners demanding it in droves. “There’s a tenderness to it that there isn’t in commercial beef,” said Scott Kleeb, Director at Morgan Ranch. “There’s a richness and depth of the beef flavor. If you like beef, this is like beef plus.”
Morgan Ranch is now one of the larger purebred Wagyu operations owned by a single family in the world. It has 176 restaurant customers, including more than 100 Michelin-starred restaurants and steakhouses in Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan, Germany, The Netherlands, Austria, and the United States. Morgan Ranch beef can also be found in some of Omaha’s finest restaurants, including V. Mertz, The Boiler Room, and The Grey Plume. Morgan Ranch offers direct to customer sales in the United States, Europe, and Japan as well.
Morgan Ranch started long before anyone in the U.S. had heard of Wagyu. The ranch began in 1934 when Ollie and Alex Morgan left the drought-stricken plains of New Mexico and settled their herd of Longhorn cattle in north-central Nebraska. The ranch transferred hands to Ollie’s brother Dan and his wife Doris in 1956, and it’s been a family-owned operation ever since. There are currently four generations of Morgans living and working on the ranch.
The ranch shifted to focusing on Hereford cattle, which it still raises. But it’s become most known for taking a chance on Wagyu beef long before it was trendy. The move looks genius now, but it was a major risk at the time. In the early days, most chefs, restaurateurs, and other buyers balked at Wagyu because of the price. Wagyu cattle take longer to reach harvest weight, so they’re a lot more expensive to raise. Kleeb compared Wagyu to making a soup or stew; you can make a good stew in a matter of hours. But the longer you let the flavors develop, the more rich and deep they become, creating a more rewarding and delicious product in the end.
“Genetically, the breed is focused toward eating quality, as opposed to the American breeds of cattle, which are focused on a race to the finish line,” Dan Morgan said. “With Wagyu, it takes longer. You harvest them when they’re ready, as opposed to the production after X number of days. It required a philosophical attitude change to begin raising a product based on its eating experience and its quality concerns as compared to only the cost of raising a product.”
The general public didn’t know this yet, which led to a lot of “sticker shock” as the Morgans traveled to events to market their cattle. Dan knew the adaptation process wouldn’t happen overnight, but the going was slower than he would have liked, and at times he felt lost. “Nobody had ever tried to do it before,” he said. “No rancher or even meat company had gone out and tried to introduce a specific brand label of product into a niche market. There weren’t any textbooks around to read, and there weren’t any people to ask the questions of. There was a lot of trial and error.”
Dan’s hard work finally paid off in 2000 when he participated at the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen, CO. He grabbed a drink at the bar at The Little Nell, where Carlos Nieto, one of Chicago’s most well-known and respected chefs, was sampling wines with his wife. Dan struck up with a conversation with the two, then invited them down to the kitchen for a private tasting. Though Carlos “almost dropped his glass” when he learned the price of the meat he was tasting, the Nietos were completely sold after sampling a few ribeye and tenderloins. Now Morgan Ranch had its first Wagyu customer, and things began to get a bit easier.
“When Carlos endorses your product, you have some authority when you go in to start visiting another chef,” Dan said. “The chef community is very small, so there were a lot of referrals. Carlos’ restaurant was the V. Mertz of Highland Park in Chicago. All the young guys wandered through there in their training and internships, so they knew everybody and were able to make some phone calls for me.”
Even as Wagyu has moved from a niche product to one mass-produced by major corporations, Morgan Ranch is going to keep doing what made it successful originally: take it slow, supply the best product possible, and keep things in the family. “People want to know that there’s a face behind their food, that there’s a handshake that can be had,” Kleeb said. “They want to know that there’s not something behind the curtain. I’d like us to be part of the story and getting people better beef, not just beef, and allowing them to participate in what we love, which is the rolling hills and getting up at 2 o’clock in the morning when there’s a blizzard to check every cow. The growth of Wagyu is giving us a chance to retell the story in a way those larger operations can’t.”