The Story of Generations Beef

No more milking as Japanese beef cattle provide 

alternative for Dane County farm

Barry Adams | Wisconsin State Journal Nov 28, 2022

TOWN OF PERRY — Had Darren Kittleson's ancestors stayed put in Rockdale, farming may have been somewhat easier thanks to the relatively flat terrain south of Cambridge. But shortly after arriving from Norway in the early 1870s, the Kittleson clan headed to the other side of Dane County, known for its non-glaciated landscape, shallow soil, steep hills and accompanying valleys. The geography was reminiscent of home and is where for five generations the family has worked the land and tended to small herds of dairy cows on what they referred to as Brunkeberg Kviteseid Farms, named after their homeland in the Telemark region of southern Norway, about 175 miles southwest of Oslo.

And, like thousands of other family farms throughout Wisconsin, dairying, regardless of topography, became untenable. The last milking on this 160-acre farmstead was in 1999. There were beef cows for a bit, and at one time wind turbines were considered but never installed on the ridge along Highway H, southeast of Daleyville and just a few miles north of the Green County line.

This is where brothers Darren and Chris Kittleson and their sister, Dawn Doran, are breeding and raising Akaushi cattle, a type of Wagyu beef known for its distinct marbling, rich taste and higher profit margins than the traditional black and red Angus that first arrived in the U.S. from Scotland in the 1870s. The trio is hoping that, like dairy cows, the beef cows with Japanese lineage can provide a path forward and keep the land here in the Kittleson Valley working for generations to come.

"Well, we don't have to milk cows, twice or three times a day like we did growing up," said Darren Kittleson, 56, who purchased his parents' farm in 2018 and founded Generations Beef.

"The inputs are the same, right? It's raising great quality feed. It's making sure you've got a healthy herd of animals and the daily maintenance of it. It's not as intense some times of the year as dairy operations are, but then during calving season it's more intense than anything we did when we were dairying."

The end product is also different and at a significantly higher price point.  Instead of milk that could be poured onto cereal or converted to cheese, the payout from the cows can include 44-ounce tomahawk ribeye steaks for $121 each, ground beef for $5 a pound and 24-ounce Kansas City strip steaks for $31 each. Sold direct to consumers via the company's website and delivered within a 100-mile radius of Madison by the Kittlesons, other products include flank steaks, chuck roasts, brisket and picanha, taken from the top of the rump and popular at Brazilian steakhouses.

"One thing COVID did is make people a little more aware of where their meat is coming from," Kittleson said. "We’re a little more expensive, but you also know where it’s coming from, and we’re feeding (the animals) as naturally as we can.”

According to the American Akaushi Association, the cattle are almost entirely derived from the original full-blood Akaushi (pronounced ah-kah-ooshi) herd imported to the U.S. in 1994. The cows were flown to Milwaukee and quarantined in Whitewater before being trucked to a farm in Texas.

There are now dozens of Akaushi farms around the country, but the Kittlesons are one of the few in Wisconsin raising the cows, known for their red color. Some farms are raising black Wagyu, including Drath Family Farm in rural Waupaca County near Ogdensburg.

The farm, which now also grows ginseng, was established in 1940 as a dairy operation but transitioned to a full-blood black Wagyu operation in 2013. Porterhouse steaks sell for $80 a pound, tenderloin filets are $95 per pound and chuck roasts sell for $58 per pound, according to the farm's website. The beef raised at the farm are Wagyu but not Akaushi.

"It's good for us as smaller farms," Nathan Drath said via phone on Friday. "It's all about the genetics."

According to Aaron Cooper, a Texas-based researcher, Akaushi will grow faster and  deposit more marbling at a younger age, while black Wagyu have a greater propensity to  marble higher if fed longer than 24 months of age. Both breeds are helping traditional dairy farms move into different markets.

"The important take-home message is to be open- minded about how the different breeds can improve production efficiency and ultimately your bottom line," Cooper wrote on his website. 

In 1978, Wisconsin had 47,700 dairy farms. Today, there are about 6,000, and the number continues to decline, while milk production rises with the growth of farms with thousands of cows and milking assembly lines that never pause. Some farms have turned to dairy operations that raise sheep, goat and specialty cow herds that supply the state's growing craft cheese, butter and ice cream industry.

There are llama and alpaca farms, those that specialize in agricultural entertainment with haunted houses, corn mazes, pumpkin patches and gift shops, while some farms have been converted to wedding venues, the farmhouse used as lodging, the barn turned into a rustic reception hall.

Others, however, fall into disrepair and eventually vanish from the the rural landscape. But the Akaushi may be an answer for the Kittlesons' farm, where a cattle shed sits on the land that once held the dairy barn.

Darren Kittleson didn't pursue farming due to a back injury he sustained playing football while at Mount Horeb High School. Instead, after graduating from UW-Madison, he headed in 1989 to Chicago, where he began building a real estate career.

He moved to Madison in 1993 to continue his career and now trains real estate agents for Keller Williams, a position that can send him traveling around the world.

But in 2018, he made a real estate purchase of his own when he bought his parents' farm and teamed with his siblings to raise Akaushi using a full-blooded bull and black and red Angus and shorthorn cows. This year's calves range from 50% to 75% Akaushi, which means more money from each cut of meat. The animals are processed on the farm by Prem Meats in Spring Green, where the Kittlesons store their products until delivery.

The beef cows are typically slaughtered when they reach 1,300 to 1,350 pounds, which yields about 400 to 500 pounds of beef. The Kittlesons, who first began selling direct to consumers in 2021, are hoping to sell about 10,000 pounds of beef a year. 

“It’s a lot to move,” Darren Kittleson said. "The pace has picked up, and we’re selling a lot of meat.”

The Kittlesons have a herd of about 63 adult cows, 60 of which have been bred and will calve in late February and early March. The goal is to build the herd to 80 adult cows with 75 to 80 calves born each spring. The animals graze on pasture land on the ridge that is covered with fescue, orchard grass, alfalfa and red clover that is also harvested as hay for the winter. But raising specialty beef offers no guarantees.

“Most people have never heard of Wagyu. You have to educate them on what it is and why we cut it the way we do and why we’re offering what we have just because the knowledge isn’t there on the consumer side," said Chris Kittleson, who manages the day-to-day farm operations and is an avid outdoorsman. "But once they’ve tried it,then they want to know more about it.”