It was supposed to be a definitive steak tasting. A tournament of Texas Wagyu beef, if you will. I had gathered a dozen strip steaks, most of them from Texas-raised Wagyu producers, and even more friends to come judge the steaks head-to-head. The white specks of fat dazzled like stars in each raw piece of beef laid out in a long row, ready for grilling. I grilled them, seasoned only with Kosher salt, in three batches of four directly over wood coals, and I served each one medium rare. We tasted and discussed, not holding back our favorites from each group (the tasting was blind for me, but two tasters who kept track of which randomly lettered steak was which knew what they were eating). Taste preferences can be personal, and there were no official scorecards, but I assumed there would be a couple clear favorites, maybe even one. That didn’t happen—which goes to show just how good we have it in Texas with our homegrown Wagyu beef.
Over the next several months, I’ll be writing a series on each producer in that tasting (and a few more I was later made aware of). You’ll learn the differences in genetics between the herds, where you can find the producers’ beef in restaurants and stores, and the history of Japanese Wagyu cattle in Texas. This journey began with a visit to Scharbauer Ranch and its Midland Meat Company in Midland. Trying the ranch’s beef alongside that of so many other great producers deepened what has become a bit of a personal Wagyu obsession. While that steak tasting didn’t result in a definitive winner, there were some names that my fellow tasters kept coming back to, and four of them had something important in common: all that marbling was developed at one small feed yard way up in the Panhandle, near the small town of Gruver, about a hundred miles northeast of Amarillo.
Morris Stock Farm is run by Joe Morris and his family. His grandfather J. R. Morris left Blue Mound, Oklahoma, in 1926 to homestead in Hartley County, farther to the west. He brought a tractor, a wagon, a team of horses, and a milk cow. “This is where the tractor broke down, and in a storm the horses ran back to Oklahoma,” Joe said, so J.R. changed plans and built a house. Well, first he built a dugout in the earth with a roof for shelter so his wife, Mary Belle, could join him. Joe’s father, Vance, was raised in that dugout. The family had a built a bona fide house over the dugout by the time Joe was born, and that’s where he lives today with his wife, Nancy. “I have indoor plumbing,” he said with a laugh.
Across County Road Y, a road so remote no one has even bothered posting a speed limit, is the house where Joe’s parents lived. Nowadays his daughter Brittany and her husband, Dustin Borden, call it home. They run their own small herd of beef cattle, sold under the 4B Meats brand. Dustin also helps Joe and the Morris Stock Farm team feed up to 9,000 head of cattle at a time. That may seem like a lot, but it’s a small feedlot by Texas beef standards. Take the nearby USA Feedyard, for example, which has the capacity for 62,000 head. “We are small in the cattle-feeding industry, but we’re pretty large in the Wagyu industry,” Joe said.
A feed yard of any size typically purchases calves that have been weaned from their mothers, fattens them, and then sells those fattened cattle to a beef processing plant. At Morris Stock Farm, most of the cattle belong to a branded beef operation that has sent its cattle to Gruver to fatten up. After they’re fattened, their owners will send the cattle to a processing plant and package the beef under their own brand name—and the kind of fat on that meat matters.
When the animals are ready for slaughter and processing, the intramuscular fat is prized; a layer of fat just under the skin that’s too thick is frowned upon. The concentration of those white specks of fat within the lean muscle determine whether the beef will grade at Prime, Choice, or Select. Prime is the best because the higher grade of beef fetches higher prices.
Morris Stock Farm has an advantage because 95 percent of the cattle are Wagyu crosses or full-blood Wagyu cattle, a Japanese breed known for its marbling—but also for its slow growth. The longer you have to feed cattle, the more you’ll have to charge for the beef to get a return on your feed investment. Of the crossbred Wagyu cattle that leave Morris Stock Farm, 85 to 90 percent grade out as Prime, compared to 10 percent in 2021 for commodity beef overall. That’s why Burch Wallace, cofounder of the Texas Wagyu Association, contacted Joe in 2010. Wallace, who had just started his organization in 2009, wanted to experiment with some crossbreeds of Wagyu. After several dozen head of Wagyu cattle were fed at Morris Stock Farm for over a year, the duo found that the F1 cattle, an industry term for a fifty-fifty crossbreed, matured more rapidly than full-blood Wagyu, while still producing incredible marbling.
Joe Morris decided then that it was time to innovate in the family’s operation, just like the generations before him had. His grandfather had been one of the first in the Panhandle to breed certified Hereford cattle. In 1957, when a drought forced his father, Vance, to sell off most of his herd at a loss, Vance decided to build one of the region’s first cattle-feeding operations. Most cattle at the time were fattened in pastures, mainly on grass. Vance began taking on other people’s cattle to fatten them up. Joe has expanded that model, adding capacity for two thousand additional head earlier this year, and he took the innovations a step further by specializing in what he saw as the future of Texas beef—even if the Wagyu breed was new to the state.
Joe set up a table at Wagyu Association meetings and conventions; he eventually got A Bar N Ranch, from Celina; Midland Meat Company, from Midland; and Legacy Custom Meats, from LaGrange, to send their entire Wagyu cross herds to Gruver for feeding. Along with 4B Meats, Brittany and Dustin Borden’s brand, those were all names in contention for the best strip steak in that steak tasting in my backyard, and all of those producers are raising F1 crossbreeds.
Finding the right breed-specific feeding program took several years. “We have a secret sauce,” Joe said, which is a feed recipe that includes once-used cooking oil mixed with corn, molasses, and 190-proof, food-grade alcohol. “We have a computer system in the office that monitors the mix of feed in each truck, the location of each truck, and how much feed they dispensed where,” Joe’s sister Sherry Morris McWilliams, who monitors the feeding program from the office, explained. Making sure the animals stay healthy is largely the responsibility of Joe’s oldest daughter Brandy Morris, who also lives on the farm with her family. The beef are raised to be all-natural, as certified by IMI Global. That means no growth promotants, no mass treatment of antibiotics, and no animal by-products in the feed.
All of those F1 cattle mentioned above spend about 400 days feeding at a cost of about $5 per day per head, given the current high price of corn. “Our feeding ration is made so they’ll gain around 1.7 pounds a day, so we have an estimate about when they should be ready,” Sherry explained. For comparison, the few full-blood Wagyu are fed for 550 days to reach maturity, while commodity cattle are routinely fed for 300 days to a year. It costs more to produce this beef, but the flavor difference is astounding.
As we talked at Morris Stock Farm, Brittany Borden was slicing a 4B Meats tri-tip that she had smoked. Even sliced on the thicker side, it was buttery tender. I shared with them just how well the beef that came from their operation performed in the steak tasting. I had thrown a regular grocery-store Prime-grade strip steak into the mix, and it tasted watery compared to the juiciness created by all that marbling in the Wagyu steaks. Even the edge fat on the strips, which is usually too hard to eat with ease, was tender in the Wagyu steaks. I bought several more cuts to bring home from the freezer full of beef on the property that acts as 4B’s retail shop. Brittany promised I could grill the round steaks, a cut usually so lean it’s reserved for nothing but Salisbury steak or beef jerky, so I took a couple home. I grilled one the other night alongside a strip steak and marveled at how tender and juicy the medium-rare round steak turned out.
Although most of the F1 cattle at the feed yard have Angus genetics, the Bordens have focused on full French Charolais heifers to breed their Wagyu bulls with. The heifers are white-hided cattle, and despite the black coloring in the Wagyu bloodlines, so are the crossbred calves. The Charolais is an animal bred for pulling a plow rather than for producing juicy, tender beef. “The Charolais have no marbling known to God, so if they’ve got it, it came from the bull,” Joe said. And the crossbreeds certainly take on that marbling—and also do remarkably well at not building up that thick fat under the skin, even after four hundred days of Morris Stock Farm’s secret sauce.
For now, you can only find beef from 4B Meats at a few restaurants in the Panhandle. The company’s steaks are on the menus of Girasol and Macaroni Joe’s in Amarillo and Roma Italian Restaurant in Borger, about forty miles south of Gruver. You can get your pick of any cut directly from the Morris Stock Farm property southwest of Gruver, which is a heck of a drive even from Amarillo, or you can find a few cuts at the Water Store in Borger; Watonga Cheese Factory in Perryton, about forty miles east of Gruver; and at Salt in Amarillo. Dustin said the company can now ship its beef within the U.S. (call or email for details), so you won’t have to go to the Panhandle for a bite. But be warned—4B only slaughters one hundred head of the cattle per year, so the cut you want may be unavailable from week to week.
Morris Stock Farm is a unique feed yard in the world of Texas Wagyu beef. It literally produces some of the best beef that can be had in Texas, and does it for several different beef brands. Joe Morris has brought the operation a long way from that hole in the ground where his grandfather settled. And Dustin and Brittany are adding their own new dimension to the family business. Way out here along County Road Y, ninety minutes from the Amarillo airport, Joe wouldn’t have it any other way. “People that work in town, they work all their working life at a job they hate so they can go buy them a little farm out someplace and run some cows,” he said. But he’s already got his three thousand acres out in the country, and he told me, with all sincerity, “Hell, I live in paradise.”