Peeler’s name is associated with various cattle ranching operations south of San Antonio. Christina has the A.M. Peeler Ranch, a sixth generation ranch founded in 1882 and owned by Alonzo and Barbara Peeler and their son Jason. In 2014 Jason partnered with Dustin Dean at Dean & Peeler Premium Angus Beef in Floresville in 2014 and they have their own USDA verified Dean & Peeler Meatworks processing facility in Pot. East of Floresville, you’ll find several hundred Akaushi cattle on the three thousand acres that make up Peeler Farm’s wagyu herd.
The latter is the brainchild of Jason and his wife Marianne. They introduced wagyu genetics into an existing herd of Angus cattle back in 2007. By crossing and purchasing additional akaushi (a special type of wagyu) bulls and breeding stock, they raised a herd of both purebreds (at least fifteen sixteenths of wagyu) and purebreds. and purebred (Japanese bloodlines only) wagyu cattle. Two years later, Marianne opened Peeler Farms as a chicken and egg business, but the couple decided to focus entirely on wagyu beef in 2014 when they raised their flock. Since then, the company has focused on both grain-fed and grass-fed wagyu beef.
I have written about several Texas wagyu growers, and Peeler Farms is unique in several ways. It only sells beef from 100% Wagyu cattle, not F1 cattle, which are half Wagyu and half another breed such as Angus or Charolais. The Peelers only sell beef, not their breeding stock, and raise everything themselves rather than contract with other ranchers. Peeler Farms is a fully vertically integrated beef operation with a ranch and feedlot located on the same site. The animals are processed at the family-owned Dean & Peeler Meatworks, the only federally controlled beef slaughter facility between Dallas and Corpus Christi. The family sells beef at their own La Vernia meat market and a partner market in Robstown and delivers it to restaurants (full list here) in a refrigerated van.
“It’s really very personal,” Marianne told me. She builds relationships with chefs and can offer them personalized service depending on what they want. But all this is possible because of how small her operation is. Her head cowboy, Brad McDougal, asks her every week how much cattle she needs to complete her orders. These days it’s usually just seven grain-fed cows and two grass-fed cows. “I’m still quite the boutique venture and I will intentionally stay that way forever,” Marianne said. She would like to see Peeler Farms grow, but the question is whether to focus her marketing efforts on the grass-feeding aspect, the Wagyu genetics, or both.
“The problem is that now everyone is busy with the wagyu,” said Marianne half-jokingly. At the beginning of this century, Wagyu was not just a boutique brand of beef, it was, in fact, a speakeasy. Fast forward to 2019 when the world’s largest beef company JBS added the Wagyu line with the purchase of Imperial American Wagyu Beef. The airwaves have been flooded with ads for Arby’s new Wagyu Steakhouse Burger, which is just 51 percent Wagyu beef. The association with fast food makes Wagyu’s name a little less attractive. “I have to figure out how to be different,” Marianne told Jason when they first saw the ad. And it may have to do with wagyu grass-fed cattle, which Marianne says are easier and cheaper to raise than their grain-fed counterparts.
When the cattle are about sixteen months old, the cleaners perform an ultrasound of each of them to determine their marbling up to that point. Those with the most opportunities to increase intramuscular fat—usually about 90 percent of the herd—are sent to the feedlot for three hundred days of grain feeding. The rest are left in the pasture to eat nothing but grass for another year or more. Grass-fed cattle take a little longer to mature, but there is no cost to fattening them. Again, they don’t get that fat.
Most of the grass-fed wagyu on the market is imported from New Zealand and Australia. Snake River Farms, one of the best-known American wagyu beef producers based in Boise, Idaho, does not offer grass-fed beef. One of the hurdles that Marianne realized after selling her own beef is that grass-fed is not like the general idea of wagyu beef. It’s just that it’s not marbled like the Wagyu ribeye meat in the photo – more white than red, due to all that fat that can be found in a glossy magazine ad. For this reason, she says, “the grass-fed ground beef market called Wagyu is bigger than the steak market.” Of all the customers in her restaurant, only one, Dai Dew in Austin, regularly orders grass-fed beef in any form. “Most of the grass-fed requests I get are from meat markets,” she said from Salt & Time in Austin, for example, which sells cuts like beef ribs and bavette steaks. While Marianne has a few loyal grass-fed clients, most of the beef that comes from grass-fed cows is turned into ground beef.
“When people ask what I do, I say I’m a hamburger salesman,” Marianne said, which is true for both grain-fed and grass-fed beef. There are so many ribeyes, tenderloins and brisket on the animal. In addition, Marianne said, “I don’t think there’s a better hamburger than a Wagyu burger.” She sent me home with a couple of pounds to prove her point. I made a few Peeler Farms grass-fed Wagyu patties along with grain-fed ground beef and found them both impressive. The fat was rich in fat, which has the same qualities regardless of the feed, and the grass-fed hamburgers did not have the mineral or hunting benefits often found in other breeds of beef. And steaks too.
Along with the ground beef, I also flew home frozen steaks (after a brief inspection at the TSA checkpoint) from both wagyu cattle and grass feed. The difference in marbling was evident in the three raw ribeyes. The grain-fed steak was soaked in white fat. One of the grass-fed steaks was almost completely red, and one of the best grass-fed steaks selected by Marianne looked a little more marbled. Upon inspection, I didn’t expect to pay more for it than I would for a cheap select steak at the grocery store, but then I made a ribeye and tried them together. I’ve tried a lot of grass fed steaks. Even in small bites, they usually require a lot of chewing, but Peeler Farms beef was different. The natural tenderness from the Wagyu genetics compensated for the marbling, while the meat retained an unexpected juiciness. This, combined with the clean, meaty flavor, made it the best grass-fed steak I’ve eaten.
As for Wagyu grain fattening, you don’t have to cook it yourself to enjoy it. In Austin, Peeler Farms supplies beef to Pool Burger, Sour Duck Market, and the aforementioned Dai Due and Salt & Time (among others). The lunch burger at Cured in San Antonio is also made with Peeler Farms beef, but Marianne said I should visit Cullum’s Attaboy on San Antonio’s St. Mary’s Street for a bavette steak and a couple of burger options. The perfectly fluffy egg steak was stunning, and I was blown away by the meaty simplicity of the cheeseburger on a freshly baked bun, especially when garnished with Callum’s flawless fries.
Peeler Farms needs more of these burger options to increase the amount of processed food. “If I can’t sell the whole animal, I can’t slaughter it,” Marianne said, adding, “It’s really important to me that I don’t kill livestock just to sell ribeye.” The irony is that if more people could try grass-fed ribeye like the one I ate at home, they would probably demand more of that grass-fed ground beef too. Or you can just write a letter to Marianne ([email protected]) to ask her for both, because that’s the kind of service you can get from a meat ranch in Texas.