BARLEY MAKES THE BEEF
BY MADELEINE BAERG • PHOTO COURTESY OF BRANT LAKE WAGYU
Wholesale meat producers with their own Calgary butcher shop, Brant Lake Wagyu (BLW) owners Michelle Ball and son Brandon said demand is on the increase for their ultra-high quality, Kobe-style beef products. What makes the meat so tasty, said Michelle, is a combination of excellent Wagyu-Angus genetics, slow production and a strict barley regimen.
“Our beef is known for its exceptional marbling, which comes from monounsaturated fat that absorbs into the muscle during cooking to create melt-in-your-mouth tenderness and moisture,” she said. “When consumers taste our beef, they say they’ll never go back to anything else. It’s that good. A big part of what makes it so special is the barley we feed.”
Established by Michelle’s former father-in-law in 1993 and headquartered in High River, BLW is billed as a pasture-to-plate operation whose clients include restaurants and food retailers across Canada. Not surprisingly, the business’s most popular cuts are steaks. It also sells a range of products from cured meats and jerky to hamburger and stewing meat.
A certified butcher, Brandon manages and operates BLW’s 8,000-square-foot custom butcher shop in Calgary, which opened in March 2021 to better service a huge jump in retail demand.
One of the biggest operations in Canada’s still-small Wagyu sector, BLW harvests about 800 head per year and employs a partnership production model. The Balls lease their full-blood Wagyu bulls to cattle farmers for breeding with Black Angus or Red Angus cows. They buy the resulting cross-bred calves at weaning to feed and finish at one of two custom feedlots.
The Balls work with nutritional consultants to ensure their animals receive an optimal diet. Just as Wagyu cattle have been raised in Japan for centuries, BLW animals gain weight slowly over an extended feeding period. Michelle targets a gain of about 2.2 pounds per day over a 730-day feeding and finishing period.
BLW cattle are fed barley silage and barley grain almost exclusively. “We refuse to sacrifice quality in the meat by deviating to any other grain,” said Michelle. “We’d be going backwards if we did.”
Despite the high cost of such feed, the Balls are committed to barley finishing because it produces the quality meat customers expect. “We choose barley because it produces the best results in the meat,” said Michelle. “The fat is a true white fat, not yellow the way it would be if we fed corn. And the flavour profile and sweetness are unique; no other feeding regimen produces such a good product.”
Michelle manages the relationships with BLW’s cow-calf partners, co-ordinates with the custom feedyards that finish the cattle, works with Canadian Premium Meat to process the cattle and handles product marketing. She also does a secondary grade on all carcasses herself to segregate the beef into two levels of marbling, 80 per cent of which exceeds the coveted Canada Prime designation.
When COVID-19 shut down the restaurant business through most of 2020, BLW diversified by offering its product to online retailers and premium grocery chains such as Urban Fare. “COVID opened the door to us thinking outside the box,” said Michelle. “Everyone has become a foodie. Consumers bought smokers and barbecues and cooked at home. Now that restaurants are operating again, we have more demand than we can meet. It’s a good problem to have.”