Crossing Borders

Published on Fri, 07/12/2013 - 10:10am

The 400 ton Boeing 747 from Japan Airlines was on its final approach into Narita Airport. The entertainment system went off for a few seconds to restart with the pilots’ point of view taken from a camera attached somewhere near the cockpit. It was overwhelming to see the immensity of Tokyo from the air, and then the runway getting closer and closer until we finally touched ground. The camera kept recording until our arrival to the gate.

The ground controller who directed the plane to our gate, seemed to behave as any other controller in the world, until he crossed his hand-signals to order the pilot to stop and then bowed in front of the huge aircraft welcoming every passenger into Japan. I was accompanying my father on a business trip in search of a new tunneling machine. We visited Kobe, where the manufacturing plant of Mitsubishi was located.  When the acquisition contract was signed, the happy sales executives took us to dinner at a highly respected restaurant called Misono-Kobe. That night was my first experience tasting Kobe Beef.

My mind was blown away with the first bite.  I could not believe the texture and flavor of that beef.  It literally burst in my mouth with juiciness and a buttery-velvety sensation I had never experienced before. 

In the weeks and months following that trip I wondered what the Japanese were doing differently to produce such a unique and outstanding product.  However it was years later that I started researching about Wagyu, the national beef breed of Japan.  In 2006, with the memories of Japan and Misono-Kobe in my mind, I visited Wagyu producers in Chile, Australia, America and Japan.  Like a sponge, I tried to soak all the information I could about this wonderful breed, with the idea of bringing the breed to Mexico.

Rancho Las Luisas is a family property located in the Northeast of Mexico.  Initially we raised Charolais and Beefmaster cattle, much like everyone else in the area did.  The operating numbers usually did not add up to a profit at the end of the year, but the idea of selling the ranch and leaving all of our team on their own was something we could not even think about.

In 2007, I took over the operation of the ranch.  My goal was to convert the ranch into a profitable business with two main objectives in mind:  obtaining the Organic Certification for all our pastures, and introducing the famous highest marbling breed into the country. 

Since we had stopped using chemical fertilizers and pesticides 17 years prior to applying for Organic certification, achieving our first objective was relatively easy.  Our intent with the Organic certification was protecting the environment in general, and more specifically to avoid polluting Soto La Marina River which borders one side of the ranch and supports the majority of our water requirements. 

Our second objective, the introduction of the Wagyu breed into Mexico was not that easy. We purchased our first 100 Fullblood Wagyu embryos from a very reputable breeder in Washington State and had catastrophic results in our first embryo transfer, working with a local technician, with only 23 of 100 embryos producing pregnancies.  We did not give up, and to his credit the breeder we made our initial purchase from stood behind his genetics and helped us regroup.  We will always be thankful for his good will and confidence in us.  Moving forward we continued buying embryos and semen to complement our genetic base, and along the way met Dr. Charles Looney, Ph.D. Dr. Looney is a founder and partner in OvaGenix, LP and received his doctorate in Reproductive Physiology from Louisiana State University.  Throughout his career Dr. Looney has played a part in the development and refinement of many of the techniques and technologies used in the embryo transfer industry today.  We made the decision to begin working with Dr Looney and our results in all aspects of reproductive work have changed dramatically. We are consistently averaging well above a 50% pregnancy rate in all our ET programs, with one transfer program achieving a pregnancy rate of 69%.

In conjunction with our efforts in embryo transfer we began an intensive F1 production program to produce feeder cattle with 50% Wagyu genetics.  In order to accomplish these ambitious objectives, we made some drastic decisions along the way: First, we removed all Charolais and Beefmaster bulls from our breeding program.  Second, we culled 30% of our cowherd and sold it, keeping only the highest performers in fertility and weight gain.  We then increased our irrigation area from 740 acres to 1000 acres.  And finally we decided to build a covered feeding barn following Japanese standards with a feeding capacity of 250 head.

By mid-2010 we were anxious and excited to harvest our first 52 F1 Wagyu steers after 600 days on feed. Finally, three years of hard work, effort and investment had to come to light.  In a way we were confident, we knew we were doing things right.  We had strictly followed Ted Naruke’s advice, backed by the renowned expertise of Japanese breeder Mr. Shogo Takeda, on management and feeding formulas.  The results were overwhelming and far exceeded our brightest expectations!  Out of the 52 steers, only 3 graded USDA Choice, and the rest were USDA Prime, or if I may, well above Prime.  Finally, we organized a palatability panel with top chefs, restaurant owners, and gourmands in Mexico City.  The panel consisted of using 1 inch thick cuts of strip loin from 4 different products:  Choice quality Mexican beef, Choice quality American beef, Prime quality American beef, and our Mexican produced Wagyu F1 cross, all cooked at the same temperature and with nothing added.  It was very gratifying for us to know there was a unanimous consensus that our beef was the best in all the traits evaluated: appearance, tenderness, juiciness and flavor.  Soon the buzz started to spread and we began the successful distribution of our beef to restaurants and hotels.  In the coming months, our market share grew considerably and led us to design an ambitious expansion plan for our ranch in Tamaulipas, Mexico.  But unfortunately not all things went smoothly.

We were ready to invest a considerable amount of capital in the construction of a new Japanese style feeding facility at the ranch, when the candidate for governor in the State of Tamaulipas was shot dead along with other 3 people traveling with him on the 28th of June 2010, just six days prior to the elections.  The shooting took place on the same road that we use to commute from the airport to the ranch, just a few miles from the ranch entrance.  I traveled on the 2nd of July 2010 back to the ranch.  Even though I knew road was militarized and heavily guarded it was still a very stressful time.  I remember that I was sweating in fear after every sharp curve on the road and hoping that we did not come across an unwanted vehicle with armed criminals.  Once at the ranch, the nights were sleepless.  When the dogs started barking, I stood out of bed and with all the lights out, peeked through the window hoping for a coyote or a feral hog instead of an armed intruder.  After three nights at the ranch, I decided that the stress was unbearable and flew back to Mexico City.  That was my last visit to our ranch in Tamaulipas and since then violence in the country has behaved like a frequency curve, with peaks and valleys, but overall the roads in the area are still governed by the drug cartels and insecurity prevails. 

As a result I have had to learn to manage the ranch from the distance and keep it going despite the frustration and anger triggered by the situation.  I must admit that if it wasn’t for the loyalty and love of all our people at the ranch, the project would have gone down the drain.  I will be forever grateful to them as locals who have withstood all the atrocities, kept up with their values and stayed safe in the company of their loving families.  Without a doubt, they are an extraordinary example of courage and resilience.  All my admiration, respect and support is with each and every one of them.  They are part of my family too.

By coincidence or by design, on late July 2010 I received a message in my “junk” e-mail from the Office of the Governor of Texas, Rick Perry.  It was an invitation to a seminar to be held on the 26th of August in Mexico City called: “Texas, Wide Open for Business:  How to establish an enterprise in Texas”.   Until then, I did not have the clarity of how to proceed with the ambitious expansion plans we had set up, so I decided to attend.  There I met Mr. Salvador Apud from US-Mexico Consulting, and discussed the possibility of redirecting the investment plans we had for Tamaulipas to the State of Texas.  And so it happened.

Marble Ranch is a beautiful 327 ac property located in Iola, TX just 25 minutes away from Bryan/College Station and where the main offices of OvaGenix are located.  Its acquisition is a product of our search that started after I attended the Beef Cattle Short Course and Beef 706 seminars at Texas A&M University.  The close proximity to OvaGenix, Texas A&M, and the beautiful landscape made it the perfect location for our expansion.  Today Marble Ranch is a Fullblood Wagyu Operation working in a joint partnership with OvaGenix.  Together we have established a state of the art reproductive clinic called “OvaGenix at Marble Ranch”, which not only covers all the reproductive needs of our Wagyu herd, but also offers its vast array of services to all purebred and commercial cattle breeders.  The over 30 year experience of Dr. Looney and his team is the main pillar of success for the clinic.  OvaGenix is recognized worldwide for excellent customer service and has performed work for over 500 clients providing cutting-edge information and service in countries like Australia, Brazil, Colombia, Panama, Argentina among many others.  In Mexico, it has an international office incorporated in 2009 with the name of OvaMex to offer its services to Mexican cattlemen. 

OvaGenix at Marble Ranch was accredited by the USDA shortly after its opening and is now a certified embryo export center.  We perform activities like conventional embryo collections, transfer both fresh and frozen, in-vitro fertilization (IVF), tissue banking for cloning purposes, refined freezing techniques, and timed breeding for artificial insemination (AI).

Today, the relationship between OvaGenix, Marble Ranch and Rancho Las Luisas continues to strengthen in a very particular bi-national operation.  Over 1000 embryos are produced annually at Marble Ranch to be exported to Rancho Las Luisas in Mexico where our recipient herd is located.  The 100% Fullblood Wagyu calves are born and weaned in Mexico to be imported back to Texas as seed-stock or feeder cattle.  The intact heifers will enter our reproductive system and serve as donor cows to produce more embryos, and the feeder cattle will remain in Texas until harvesting them to be exported as fine beef cuts into Mexico.

Crossing borders was originally a necessity for survival. Today it has become a successful expansion plan with views to a better future on both sides of the border.