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GOOD NEWS TAB PART 1 -- Texas rancher creates $200-per-plate Kobe beef success

It's like peddling Texas oil to Saudi Arabia

Knight Ridder/Tribune

BRADFORD, Texas -- The Tiger Woods of Japanese bass fishing wants to be the Ralph Lauren of beef.

Gary Yamamoto, champion fisherman and lure manufacturer, raises the world's most expensive meat on his East Texas ranches, $200-per-plate Kobe beef.

That would be like peddling Texas oil to Saudi Arabia. But that's his goal.

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"I want to produce Japanese-quality meat for Japan," says Yamamoto, without reservation or hesitation.

He runs one of the biggest herds of Wagyu (pronounced wah-G'YOU) cattle in the world on a 10,000-acre cluster of five ranches in East Texas. Five hundred head are purebred, "the largest fullblood herd in the U.S.," he said.

Another 1,000 are three-quarters (or more) Wagyu crossed with black Angus. Although the breed is Wagyu, the meat is better known as Kobe beef, after the Japanese port city where the cattle are slaughtered. This is the breed known worldwide for exotic (and often exaggerated) pampering: diets of special grains and beer, massages to keep them relaxed and minimize muscle development that could toughen the "melt-in-your-mouth" meat. That expression is not an exaggeration. The fat in Kobe beef melts like butter, at a lower temperature than other beef fat.

Yamamoto's interest in ranching coincided with Americans' growing appetite for ultra-expensive, ultra-rich Kobe beef. In the early '90s, big spenders and celebrities began lapping up Japanese-raised Kobe beef at $150 per steak at a few restaurants in New York and Los Angeles.

At $45 per pound wholesale, American cattle growers took notice and faltering efforts to raise Wagyu in the United States were renewed by commercial interests and investors.

Then, in March 2000, an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in southern Japan resulted in a ban on the sale of Japanese beef in the United States. Suddenly there was an American market for a premium product that could no longer be imported, further boosting the prospects for raising Wagyu domestically. Just as guests are well-cared for at Yamamoto's Sugoi Lakes Lodge and Resort in Mineola, or at the home ranch in Bradford, the cattle are coddled. But it's not true that ranch hands share Saturday evening six-packs with the cows. All that stuff about massaging the cattle and hand-feeding them beer is a bunch of bull, or at least an exaggeration, says Mark Hoegh, marketing director for YamaBeef, the corporate entity responsible for selling Gary Yamamoto Custom Beef.

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