By Matt Reese
The economy is tough for many consumers right now as costs at the grocery store — and pretty much everywhere else — have spiked. For many families, low-cost options for protein have become a necessity for day-to-day menu options, which can be a challenge for comparatively high-priced beef.
Even with the current economic woes at the grocery store, though, it is hard to beat a delicious steak for special occasions, no matter what the price. Some high-end consumers feel this is especially true of melt-in-your-mouth Wagyu beef sold under the Sakura brand (which means cherry blossom in Japanese) and raised at Thistlegate Farms in Delaware County.
“The demand for premium quality beef has gone up while the overall usage of beef has gone down. A lot of people in the industry talk about chicken versus beef. Every little kid loves chicken nuggets and the demand for that has skyrocketed,” said Charlie Reffitt, president of Hondros Farms. “We’ve got to find better ways to compete against the other meat producers in this country and that’s how we do it — with the higher-end beef.”
Wagyu cattle were first imported to the U.S. from Japan in the 1970s. At the time the Japanese were only willing to export a few Wagyu cattle and the exports stopped altogether in late 1990s, which encouraged U.S. producers to develop their own herds. There are roughly 30,000 Wagyu-influenced cattle in the U.S., largely F1 cattle that are at least 50% Wagyu. There are relatively few full-blood animals in the U.S. Wagyu beef is known for high marbling and a lower temperature melting point for the fat. Ohio’s high-quality Angus cow herd base and climate work well for production of the high-quality Wagyu cross beef.
Hondros Farms consists of about 2,500 acres of hay and row-crop ground in Delaware, Licking, Knox, and Morrow counties and 950 head of cattle with an emphasis on Wagyu and Angus genetics. Reffitt lives at Thistlegate, where they pasture the brood cows.
“We own three feedlots, two in Ohio. We have about 250 brood cows and replacements. They are on pasture in five locations close by. We like the black Wagyu bulls over the red Wagyu bulls because of the better marbling. We rent our bulls to different farmers to use with their quality cows, good Angus or good Herefords, and we buy back the calves at market plus premium,” Reffitt said. “We pay a yardage fee to the feedlots to feed out the calves how we want. It takes longer to feed them out and you have to feed them slower. The feedlots must feed an all-natural diet, all vegetarian, no antibiotics, and use no ID chips. You have to start them slower and not push them as hard on the front end to get better marbling without all the hoof issues and weight issues from getting too heavy on concrete for too long. We like to have them on feed for 22 to 25 months for an F1 and when you get into the fullbloods you’re talking more like 25 to 30 months just to really get that high-end marbling. There’s a lot more management early on too. We creep feed earlier to help get that intermuscular marbling started at an early age.”
The brood cows need daily monitoring to maintain a good productive herd.
“As far as the management goes, I feel like that is mostly paying attention to their surroundings and paying attention to what the animals need. You know when the cows are hungry. You know when the cows are thirsty and you know they will act a certain way if something is wrong. A person that’s around their livestock all the time knows what they need and when they need it,” Reffitt said. “I’m always checking the cows to catch minor issues early. The visual intelligence to identify those problems and correct them is one of my strong suits.”
Hondros Farms was built by well-known central Ohio businessman John Hondros, who passed away in 2022.
“He came from pretty much nothing. John grew up in Kansas and he always wanted to farm and always wanted to be involved in agriculture, but he just never had the money to do it. As we all know, it takes a lot of capital to get started,” Reffitt said. “So as his businesses began to flourish when he got older, he started buying ground around central Ohio. He always insisted on the farm paying for itself and growing on its own organically. He was my mentor. He was incredibly good at business decisions.”
Reffitt was hired about 10 years ago.
“I had a fish and wildlife degree. I initially got hired to manage the properties for deer and turkeys around central Ohio. John was a really an avid outdoorsman and a conservationist and wanted to bring me in to help on the farm with managing wildlife. Then I started mowing grass and working in the flower beds and doing everything else around the operation. That kind of just developed from there into a full-blown farming operation and managing a lot of cattle,” Reffitt said. “I started here with one farm and now we own 18 farms and we custom farm about 28 different farms.”
The Wagyu part of the operation got its start back in 2017 when Hondros teamed up with Francis Pang, a long-time restauranteur and Wagyu breeder from Navarre; Lawrence Adams, a Wagyu producer and former CEO of Imperial Wagyu; and Francis Fluharty, then a research professor with the Ohio State University Department of Animal Sciences. Their goal was to combine research, genetics, cow-calf production, and nutrition and feeding for the best marbling to create world-class American Wagyu beef. The result was Sakura Wagyu Farms.
“At the time John [Hondros] really wanted to separate us out from the competitors and do something that was sought after. He wanted the best quality beef in America. We weren’t exactly sure initially how to do it when we got into it. We went into it small time and we kind of developed our program from there and figured out exactly what we wanted to do and where the demand was,” Reffitt said. “At first, we got a Wagyu bull and it kind of went from there. After that, we started buying some Wagyu cows, some embryos and some Wagyu semen. Now we have about 72 fullblood Wagyu on the farm. It costs us more to raise them, but the per pound value is so much higher when you’re at our Reserve grade, which is the highest grade. USDA prime is our lowest grade through Sakura. One of my biggest challenges is I haven’t had that person to show me exactly how to do everything along the way with the cattle. John was an incredible mentor for business but he wasn’t a mentor for how to raise cattle, so I’ve had to develop relationships with people through Sakura to help me with that.”
The general composition of the diet for the Wagyu is similar to other cattle diets.
“Our nutritionist is experimenting with spent grain from a bourbon distillery, but the diet is fairly standard,” Reffitt said. “The amounts of the ingredients and the slow progression of increases is what we do differently at the feedlots.”
The cows are mostly kept on pasture.
“We have 130 acres in nine pastures here to rotate and we add four more after crops are off. We have fenced in about 160 acres of crop ground and go to cover crops after harvest, which are our grazing acres over the winter,” Reffitt said. “We also bale some cover crops to help reduce feed costs.”
The high-end beef is marketed through Sakura, that sells a few thousand cattle annually, primarily to two distributors for the high-end restaurant market. Thistlegate Farms has some freezer beef sales as well.
“When COVID hit, we found out it was nice to have some slots for freezer beef. People wanted it and couldn’t get it,” Reffitt said. “Before we did freezer beef, if we had a hoof problem or some other minor issue, we did not have an outlet and freezer beef was perfect for that.”
Moving forward, Reffitt wants to increase the existing synergy between the cattle operation and the crop acres, expand the use of cover crops to improve soil health, and build upon the Hondros dream of conservation and sustainable agricultural production of delicious high-end beef being sought after by customers.