Ryan Cade doesn’t like the USDA’s generous definition of the term Wagyu. “There are a lot of us in the Wagyu world that would like to see the standards tightened,” he said. Cade founded R-C Ranch with his friend Blake Robertson in 2010. They purchased ten heifers and cows from Triangle B Ranch in Oklahoma, and through in vitro fertilization from Wagyu bulls, started sending full-blood Wagyu beef to market in 2013. They’ve since done some crossbreeding with Angus cattle, but if it has an R-C Ranch label, then the animal had 75 percent or higher Wagyu bloodlines. The current USDA specifications allow for animals as low as 46.875 percent to be labeled as Wagyu beef.
There is currently no quality or marbling score required for retail beef to get a Wagyu label. Maybe you’ve heard of the Certified Angus Beef (CAB) brand, which doesn’t even require the cattle to be genetically Angus (their hides must be over half black in color). For that reason, CAB is sometimes used as a punchline, but there are certain quality requirements including yield grade and a minimum marbling score (among others) to be considered part of the CAB program. There is no equivalent certification for Wagyu beef.
That’s how you end up with a fast-food chain like Arby’s being able to serve Wagyu cheeseburgers (which are nearly half Angus beef) for around $6 each. Cade tried one of those burgers when they were still on the menu. “Curiosity drove me there,” he said, and he had mixed feelings about seeing that Wagyu label on the glowing drive-through menu. “From a brand-awareness standpoint, I think it’s kinda cool,” he said. It shows an awareness from the public that the Wagyu name has value, or else Arby’s wouldn’t be using it to sell burgers. He’s just hoping the Arby’s consumer won’t use that burger experience to judge all Wagyu beef.
Cade would rather you go to Bludorn in Houston for a burger. R-C Ranch dry-ages Wagyu shoulder clods for chef Aaron Bludorn and his staff to turn into their signature dry-aged cheeseburger. Cooked to medium rare and adorned with sharp cheddar, dijonnaise, grilled onions, and frisée, it’s everything you want from a steakhouse burger. You can also often find an R-C Ranch flatiron steak on the Bludorn menu. The evening I stopped in last month, a slab of R-C Ranch prime rib (a less frequent special than the flatiron) was one of the best versions I’ve ever eaten.
Robertson and Cade built their business on supplying restaurants with high-quality beef. In 2020, when the pandemic hit, they realized how fragile their business model was when many of their restaurant customers shut down. “We watched how all the [beef suppliers] who had a retail presence were really killing it,” Cade said. R-C just shipped individual steaks online at the time, and not very many. The owners decided to invest in their shipping platform and open their own retail outfit. The R-C Ranch Butcher Shop opened in the Houston Farmers Market in December 2021.
Cade and I met for an R-C Ranch smash burger at Underbelly Burger, also located in the farmers market, before heading to his shop next door for a tour. A freezer full of Wagyu meatloaf, chili, and chocolate chip cookies made with beef tallow was a lesson in carcass utilization. That’s beef-industry speak for finding a market for every cut, not just the steaks and chops. They’ve done that well with the lean beef rounds that are used in a line of jerky. Everything from ribeyes and strip steaks to Wagyu belly beef bacon and smoked beef ribs line the display case. I took home a Denver steak, cut from the beef chuck, which was generously marbled and incredibly tender. An R-C Ranch New York strip was one of the top picks of a group I assembled for a Texas Wagyu steak tasting last year, and it better be. At around $78 per pound, it’s one of the most expensive Texas-raised Wagyu strips on the market. “We don’t want to be the cheapest,” Cade said.
In the back of the retail store is a USDA-inspected processing facility. It’s not big, and they don’t handle live animals here. Beef quarters are shipped here from the Dean & Peeler slaughter facility in Poth. Getting such large sections of beef delivered—called primals and subprimals—rather than prepackaged steaks allows R-C Ranch to provide steaks, roasts, or ground beef to meet a restaurant’s exact specifications. The dry-aging room on site gives chefs another option for their beef orders.
The cattle are raised south of Houston on R-C’s land in Bailey’s Prairie (near Angleton) and in West Columbia. The ranch also has five coproducers who buy its Wagyu cows and bulls to raise calves to sell back to the operation. “We want to be able to control the genetics all the way through,” Cade said of the arrangement. Their beef cattle are at least 75 percent Wagyu at this point, but they’ll phase out the crossbreeding eventually. “We definitely want to be a full-blood operation,” Cade said, but they’re growing too quickly right now to make that big of a change. When I spoke to Cade and Robertson eight months ago, they were sending ten head per week for processing. Last week, it was twenty, and they plan to increase to thirty by summer.
The cattle are raised on grass until around 14 months old, then finished on grain in feedlots in Gonzales and Weimar to gain that marbling before being slaughtered at anywhere from 26 to 30 months old. They’re only labeling the beef as R-C Ranch beef if it meets specific quality markers. Images of the ribeyes are sent to a Japanese grader familiar with Wagyu grading, and the grader sends back an email with the grade. Even so, Cade said their own employees have the final say after comparing the raw beef to photo cards of exemplary R-C Ranch ribeyes of the past. That causes a potential conflict of interest that the USDA currently has no answer for. Buying a steak from R-C Ranch and just about every other Wagyu producer involves a level of trust because most of the grading is done by the companies themselves. Some may have different names for their lines of beef like premium, gold, platinum, or any number of precious metals, but the beef companies themselves often determine the qualifications for those categories.
Nearly all commodity beef sent to meat markets and grocery stores has been given a grade by USDA graders. All beef sold in the U.S. is inspected by the USDA, but beef companies have to pay for the privilege of having their beef graded by the USDA. Many are happy to because a higher grade adds value to their product. The problem for Wagyu producers is the USDA system tops out at Prime. Prime grade would be at the lower end of Wagyu in Japan, where the grading system goes up three full scores higher than Prime.
“Prime is not near enough,” Cade said, so he uses his own system to ensure the R-C Ranch beef is more marbled than Prime. He’d rather the USDA come up with a grading system for American Wagyu that goes higher, and create a certification system for Wagyu that has stricter requirements. “We need to incentivize the people that are doing it right, that are trying to have true full-blood Wagyu, that are wanting to represent the breed well,” Cade explained. At this point, it’s hard to argue that buying beef with a grade stamp from an established beef grader is better than beef producers creating their own individual standards for American Wagyu.