The perfect steak
Sept./Oct. 2015 California Bountiful magazine
Story by Ching Lee
Photos by Matt Salvo
For NFL player-turned-veterinarian, it's all in the genes
Jimmy Webb, above with his football helmet, played for the San Francisco 49ers from 1975 to 1981, below. He went on to become a veterinarian specializing in embryo transfer.
Stanislaus County veterinarian and former professional football player Jimmy Webb is not in the business of giving culinary advice, but he does know a thing or two about producing a juicy, tender, mouthwatering steak.
Don't expect tips on special seasonings, marinades or cooking techniques, however. For Webb, the perfect steak starts with cattle genetics.
Webb is not the kind of veterinarian who treats dogs and cats: His specialty is embryo transfer—and he has more than 30 years of experience in bovine genetics and reproduction. Dairy farmers and cattle ranchers call him when they have a prized cow whose favorable genetic traits they'd like to pass on.
Pro fields to pasture
Raised on a small dairy farm in Mississippi, Webb developed his love for cattle at a young age and always wanted to be a veterinarian—even as his talent for football flourished and he was selected by the San Francisco 49ers as a defensive tackle in the 1975 NFL draft. He went on to play six seasons with the 49ers and one with the San Diego Chargers. Meanwhile, he was going to vet school during the offseason.
"I had a good career," he said. "I was fortunate I got to pursue my goal of veterinary medicine along with football. I believe I'm the only veterinarian to play in the NFL."
Even though playing football didn't make him rich, Webb said he earned enough to pay for his advanced degree. He also credits football and the 49ers for getting him out to the Golden State—and eventually to his home base in Turlock.
"When Jimmy was playing football in San Francisco, he got the opportunity to visit the Central Valley," said his wife Cindy, who is also from Mississippi. "To him, the Central Valley is the promised land. This is where all the beautiful cows are. On his days off from playing football, he would come over to the Central Valley to look at cows. When people call him to work with their cattle, it's an honor because he prizes their animals as much as they do."
Webb and his wife, Cindy, raise full-blood Wagyu cattle on their ranch in Turlock.
What's your beef?
Based in the the state's No. 1 milking region, Webb's veterinary business deals largely with dairy cows. But these days, he is also using his skills to further another passion: building his own herd of full-blood Wagyu, a Japanese breed renowned for producing high-quality beef with intense marbling, which describes the even distribution of fat that is key to making meat tender.
Cindy Webb, who has been assisting her husband in his veterinary practice for the last 20 years, got him involved in the Wagyu business, with the idea that it's an area they could transition into as they look toward retirement.
"We're getting to that age where we need to slow down," she said. "We were trying to figure out something that he could do using his skills and his love for animals that was not a conflict of interest (with his dairy clients)."
Originally used as draft animals in farming because of their physical endurance, the Wagyu breed is now coveted for its meat. Wagyu genetics remain highly guarded in Japan, which banned the export of Wagyu cattle in 1999 and declared them a national living treasure.
But before the ban, there was a brief window starting in 1994 when Japan exported about 200 Wagyu cattle to the United States. Those animals became the genetic foundation of all U.S. Wagyu cattle today, and breeders such as Webb are working with some of those same genetics to grow the nation's Wagyu herd, which remains very small.
Michael Beattie, executive director of the American Wagyu Association, estimates there are only about 5,000 breeding females in the U.S. that are full-blood Wagyu. The number ending up on dinner plates is far smaller—maybe 500 animals a year, he added.
Most domestic Wagyu that Americans encounter, he said, have been crossed with Western breeds such as Angus, primarily to improve the meat quality of those breeds. The nation now has an estimated 40,000 Wagyu-influenced cattle—still a small number considering there are some 90 million head of cattle in the U.S.
"I believe Wagyu's biggest impact will be in crossbreeding here in the U.S.," Beattie said.
A cryopreservation unit enables Webb to freeze embryos from donor cows until the surrogate cows are ready to receive them. His goal of embroyo transfer is to increase the nation's herd of the highly coveted Wagyu cattle.
It's a win-win
Webb is trying to speed up the Wagyu breeding process with embryo transfer.
Artificial insemination already allows bulls with highly valued traits to father numerous offspring. But on the female side, the process is trickier because a cow normally can deliver just one calf a year.
"Through embryo transfer, that genetically superior cow can be the genetic mother of dozens of offspring in a year's time, certainly over a lifetime," Webb explained. "We've got one cow that's made over 300 embryos in her lifetime."
Because he works with so many dairy farmers, Webb said he saw a way to make it a win-win situation for him and his clients.
"I pay the dairyman for the use of his cow to be a surrogate and he benefits because now he's got a young female going into his dairy barn who's ready to start making milk for him," he said.
For example, Webb takes a milk cow such as a black-and-white Holstein and implants an embryo from a black Wagyu donor—and that Holstein delivers a Wagyu calf.
Fresh and frozen
The procedures to acquire the embryo and implant it into the surrogate are nonsurgical. Seven days after conception, Webb removes the microscopic embryo from the donor cow's reproductive tract and then either places it directly into a surrogate or preserves it in liquid nitrogen until the surrogate is ready.
Although the success rate is higher when the embryos are transferred fresh, Webb said frozen embryos allow for more flexibility—and for the ability to spread the genetic wealth, as the embryos can be shipped anywhere in the world.
"Frozen embryos are probably the most valuable commodity by weight," he said. "They could be sold for hundreds or thousands of dollars apiece—and they're just tiny specks."
Ralph Valdez, a Wagyu breeder in Washington from whom the Webbs bought some of their embryos, said Wagyu is now the fastest-growing breed of cattle in the nation and producers are having trouble keeping up with demand.
"What we're finding is that people who have experienced a good-quality Wagyu steak are coming back to it," he said. "People are willing to spend more on quality food and quality experiences. Americans are beef eaters and they love a good steak."
Wagyu beef is renowned for its unique marbling of fat that makes the meat very tender.
Wagyu or Kobe?
Wagyu is often referred to as the same breed of cattle from which the legendary Japanese Kobe beef is derived. But authentic Kobe beef, said Michael Beattie, executive director of the American Wagyu Association, must come from the Kobe region of Japan, just as the term "Champagne" is reserved for sparkling wine from the Champagne region of France.
Because of its steep price and rarity, Kobe beef is often out of reach for most people—though it remains a source of fascination. Tales of how these cattle are pampered with massages and fed a steady diet of beer have become folklore, adding to the mystique.
"It's a real delicacy," Beattie said. "It is very rich, very buttery. It just melts in your mouth."