Fellers Ranch uses localized approach to capitalize on growing demand for wagyu beef
Wagyu beef raised at Fellers Ranch is processed at the Conger Meat Market. The ranch and the meat market are less than 10 miles apart, but the company has been finding customers from far and wide.
CONGER, Minn. ― Wagyu beef is growing in popularity throughout the Midwest, and one Minnesota company is using a localized approach to cash in on that.
The term wagyu translates to "Japanese cow," but wagyu beef typically refers to several cattle breeds that produce intense marbling. The cattle are fed slowly to increase the marbling, and the meat yields significantly higher prices than conventional beef.
Ryan Merkouris had been custom feeding wagyu cattle for two and a half years for a rancher from Laramie, Wyoming. In 2021, the rancher decided to retire.
Five partners — Merkouris, Don Savelkoul, Jeremy Johnson, Jay Johnson (owner of Bushel Boy Farms in Owatonna) and Henry Savelkoul bought out the Wyoming rancher and created the company Fellers Ranch to sell the beef they raise and process in southeast Minnesota.
"We all kind of had the same vision and wanted to accomplish the same thing," said Merkouris. "We wanted to have the best wagyu there was."
Merkouris grew up on a farm near where he lives now and learned from his father, grandpa and uncle who were all cattle ranchers. His wife grew up a few miles away from him, on a dairy farm.
"All right here, within about 10 miles, is where I learned everything," said Merkouris. "I've always been into cattle and my kids are big into cattle, and we show cattle, so we're around it all day, every day."
When Merkouris got into the wagyu business three years ago, it was a change from the kind of cattle ranching he was used to.
"It was a totally different type of cattle industry than say your regular cattle feeding," he said of raising wagyu cattle. "These take a lot more care, a lot more feed.
Wagyu cattle are raised for 20-30 months, said Merkouris, compared to conventional cattle which are raised for 16-18 months.
"I have birthday cake and everything with them twice, sometimes three times," said Merkouris. "That was hard to get used to — not turning them over quite as fast as I used to."
He said that wagyu cattle are a lot more calm than the cattle he grew up raising.
"The breed is is very docile, and once in a while when maybe one gets out of the gate, he'll just stand there and watch you do your thing and you don't even have to chase them to get back in," he said.
Fellers Ranch raises about 350 head between two different locations less than a mile apart in Conger. Merkouris said the animals are fed the same feed as at conventional feedlots, but at Fellers Ranch they're doing "a lot more limit feeding" and feeding exact ingredients which are weighed out twice daily.
"They're fed 12 hours apart," said Merkouris. "And everything's cleaned up when we get here in the morning and night to feed them. They're ready and waiting for us and that's one way that we get them stretched out to that 26 to 30 months and and really get that meat tenderized and the marbling in it, which comes with age."
Other changes to raising wagyu beef compared to conventional operations are the room the animals are given and the surface they live on.
"We like to give them a lot more space and just freedom to roam, and dirt is a lot better on them than concrete for their feet, and their joints and everything," said Merkouris. "We probably spend a lot more time with them than your regular cattle feeders, because we're doing a lot more bedding, and they're not in a confined space."
A local market
Jeremy Johnson and his wife, Darcy, purchased the Conger Meat Market in 2004. Johnson had been processing wagyu beef raised by Merkouris before he became a partner in Fellers Ranch.
"We've seen tremendous growth in one year's time, so we're excited to see what the next couple years will bring," said Johnson.
Don Savelkoul, vice president of range operations for Fellers Ranch and one of the five partners, said the market owned by the Johnsons is a big reason their partnership has been a successful one.
"The big processors and conglomerates that kind of control the beef industry usually aren't interested in smaller business, and being able to track a calf from the point of birth all the way through getting on the dinner plate," said Savelkoul. "And we wanted to be able to provide that."
He said with the Conger Meat Market, owned by a local family, they're able to raise and market a product that people would know has "no (added) hormones, no antibiotics" and know exactly where it came from.
"That's something we can provide," he said. "And that's Jeremy and Darcy Johnson's business. They've been around for a long time and do an excellent job."
The market slaughters and processes five beef a day, and does wagyu cattle once a week — on Thursdays — said Johnson.
Johnson said the demand for wagyu beef is definitely growing.
"More and more people are learning about it, so every week we get emails, phone calls and stuff coming through with people that have interest in the product," said Johnson. "A lot of people don't know what the product is yet, so we're trying to educate them."
Johnson said they dry wagyu carcasses for 14 days at the market, so the meat gets tender with a lot of juiciness and flavor.
"It's very high marbled, high quality steak," he said. "So really, to sell it, you just have to get people to try it."
In order to do that, Johnson said they're offering cheaper options for new customers.
"We're trying a lot of cheaper muscles, just to get people to experience it," he said. "Different cuts like Denver steaks, sirloin flaps, flat irons, things that aren't hundreds of dollars a pound that people can try."
"There is a need for this type of meat in the Midwest, and in Minnesota in particular," said Savelkoul of wagyu beef. "People at restaurants and stores can ask for us by name and know that the product that they're getting is straight out of Conger, Minnesota."
The customer base for wagyu beef from Fellers Ranch consists of a mix of "higher end restaurants" primarily in the Twin Cities and Milwaukee, along with retail and online customers, said Savelkoul.
"We have products also at retail outlets in the Twin Cities area and around Minnesota," said Savelkoul, along with the Conger Meat Markets in Albert Lea and in Conger.
Customers can also order meat online from the Fellers Ranch website.
"We deliver overnight on dry ice and products arrive the next day, and can be cooked by consumers at their own home," said Savelkoul.
He said from the growth they've seen in the last year, he expects things to only increase from here.
"We think we got in at kind of the growing stage of wagyu," said Savelkoul. "If it's a curve, we're on the upswing of that curve, and it's growing in popularity."