When he was a freshman at Tarleton State University in Stephenville, Jimmy Horner gave up two things he’d done since fifth grade: dipping tobacco and riding bulls. His body told him he’d had enough of both, and instead he focused on a future in animal nutrition.
Horner founded Protocol Naturals in 1994 to provide specific feeds, supplements, and probiotics to Wagyu cattle–feeding operations so they could get the most out of their prized beef. Over the next 29 years, he refined his proprietary mixture to increase marbling and control carcass size, of course, but also to improve the beef’s color, shelf life, and even the smell of the cow patties.
I visited Protocol Farms near Bowie, northwest of Dallas, last month. Horner built it two years ago when he decided to implement Protocol Naturals in a feeding operation he controlled. By definition, it’s a feedlot. Penned cattle owned by Protocol’s customers, three-quarters of which are full-blood Wagyu, gorge themselves on nutrient-dense feed until they’re ready to become steaks and burgers. That’s the purpose of this place, but it didn’t look or sound like any other feedlot I’ve been to.
Instead of a cacophony of nearly eight hundred cattle mooing, the smooth sounds of a jazz saxophone came through the speakers overhead. The cattle aren’t skittish. Their curious wet noses interfered with any close-up photos I attempted, before they went right back to the pile of feed. The front of the pens are concrete and meant for feed intake and output, while satiated cattle lounge in the thick straw spread at the back of the pens. “Our whole deal here is comfort and consistency,” Horner said, adding, “They’ve got feed in front of them all the time.” In fact, the loudest thing I heard was the truck that delivers the feed. A few hours later, a robot named Ruby followed the same path, brushing the remaining hay and grain back toward the cattle. “It refreshes the feed,” Horner said.
It’s remarkably cool in the shade of the massive roof that covers the pens. Fans whir quietly, bringing a breeze up and through the gap in the roof’s ridge. “We are the first and, so far, the only permitted, covered commercial cattle-feeding facility in the state of Texas,” Horner said. Building a roof over a feedlot is as expensive as it is unusual, but the comfort it provides is hard to ignore. The hottest day at the farm last summer was 108 degrees, and Horner said it didn’t get over 82 degrees in the barn. “These cattle don’t know it’s summer, and that’s the way we want it,” he said. I spent less than an hour among the cattle, but standing in the middle of these pens felt serene.
Horner didn’t build a Comfort Inn for cattle just so they could luxuriate. “All cattle lose marbling when they’re stressed,” he said. Those small white flecks of fat in a great steak are what make Wagyu beef so valuable. Protocol Farms is trying to eliminate any stressors by mimicking the practices of the Japanese ranchers Horner learned from for decades. (His fiftieth trip to Japan is already scheduled.)
The late Yoshihisa Nakamura of Kirishima Wagyu Farm in Miyazaki Prefecture was Horner’s friend and mentor in Japan, and the first to embrace the idea that American feeding practices could benefit Japanese cattle. Nakamura became a client of Protocol Naturals back in 1994, a time when, according to Horner, most Japanese cattle ranchers didn’t want anything to do with American feeding practices. The success of Nakamura’s cattle got other Japanese ranchers interested in the program. It took until 2012 for any Wagyu producers in the U.S. to come around to his proprietary products.
A new Texas Wagyu beef company is betting big on the feeding program at Protocol Farms. I met brothers Jad and Bill Tawater at the annual meeting and cattle sale of the Texas Wagyu Association in Salado back in April. Jad said they started Iron Table Wagyu with a purchase of four bred cows at that same meeting in 2019. From there, they’ve grown their herd of Black Wagyu cattle in Gatesville to 160 head of breeding stock, and they are the biggest customer for Protocol Farms, where they currently have 250 head on feed.
“A lot of people think that real Wagyu has to come from Japan,” Jad said. He attributes that to a watering down of what the term Wagyu means in the U.S. Unlike many Texas Wagyu producers, Iron Table doesn’t want to produce Wagyu crossbreeds. “Our mission today is to raise 100 percent full-blood Wagyu cattle and genetics,” Jad told me. They’re aiming to produce beef equivalent to Japanese A5 Wagyu, and they think Protocol Farms is their best partner to get there. “To maximize the potential of Wagyu cattle, we need to mimic what the Japanese do,” Jad said, and Horner agrees. Eight months ago, Iron Table slaughtered its first animal that graded as A5. USDA graders don’t go that high, so Iron Table uses a Meat Image Japan (MIJ) beef-grading camera that gives them data on the intramuscular fat content of their beef. The percentage of their beef that grades as A5 continues to climb.
Most of Iron Table’s beef sales are direct-to-consumer from its website. Ribeyes are around $80 per pound, and the ground beef, which Jad says is the number one seller, is currently $14 per pound. Processing just eight head of Wagyu per month means they can’t supply many restaurants with beef, but Pignetti’s in Waco serves its New York Strip. Jad sent me a ribeye, which I cooked at home, and it was superb. A couple spots in Austin offer an Iron Table Wagyu burger. At $22, the six-ounce Wagyu burger (served with one side) at CM Smokehouse is one of the juiciest cheeseburgers I’ve ever tried, and Not a Damn Chance Burger inside Idle Hands on Rainey serves a $16 Wagyu smashburger whose patty has a sear dreams are made of.
Back at Protocol Farms, Horner explained why it’s so hard to get Japanese-quality beef in the U.S., even with a good feeding program and full-blood genetics. “We don’t have quite the genetic pool the Japanese have, but also the way we handle the cattle up front early in life is much different than how the Japanese do it,” he said. In Japan, ranchers focus on the health of the mother during the development of the fetus, and that’s what Horner is trying to instill in his customers. He said the muscle fibers begin to form in the second trimester of the calf in utero, so the mother’s diet affects the calf’s potential marbling. “By the time the calf is three or four months old, you’ve only got about half the marbling potential left to work with,” Horner said, so his customers can’t expect his feeding program to make a diamond out of coal.
Touring Protocol Farms, it’s obvious Horner’s operation is different from most feedlots, but I wondered if he knew of other feeding operations that specialized in the Wagyu breed like he does. Morris Stock Farm (which we profiled last year) is the only other Texas feedlot he could think of, and he sells them many of his supplements. “If you can’t get them here, then that’s where they need to be fed,” he said.
But what about the name? Protocol Farms doesn’t sound bucolic like so many other beef companies, and Horner said it’s not meant to. “Protocol implies an intentional set of instructions to achieve a specific purpose,” he said, and that dedication is gaining him customers quickly. Construction for a new barn is underway, which will give a capacity for about 1,600 cattle. He’s permitted to feed 4,100 head on the land, so the expansion won’t stop there, which means Texans will be closer to a steady supply of Texas-raised A5 Wagyu.