What’s An Akaushi?
Clay Coppedge, Progressive Farmer
Japanese cattle breed is poised to raise the quality bar for the U.S. beef industry.
The cows at HeartBrand Ranch might look conventional enough to the casual observer, but a livestock producer will notice one thing right away—they’re red, not the usual black. The differences are more than hide-deep at this ranch, near Harwood, Texas. These red beauties are Akaushi, one of four breeds known collectively as Wagyu. “Wagyu” translates simply enough as “Japanese cow.”
The folks at HeartBrand Beef and the American Akaushi Association (AAA) believe these cattle can do wonderful things, namely improve the bottom line for cow/calf producers and the beef industry as a whole. It’s a tall order for an animal whose name most people struggle to pronounce. But if enthusiasm counts for much, Bubba Bain’s vision is hard to discount.
“We wake up every morning wondering why 100% of the industry isn’t totally embracing this,” says Bain, executive director of the AAA. “Hopefully, we can get the feedlots and the packers to talk to producers and tell them we need these kinds of carcasses, and the only way we can get them is with Akaushi.”
Of the four Japanese breeds of cattle, Akaushi is the one known in its native Japan as the “Emperor’s Breed.” They did not exist outside of Japan until 1994, the year eight females and three males were shipped to the U.S. on a specially equipped Boeing 747. They found their way to HeartBrand Ranch in 1994, where they have helped build a herd that has not only survived but thrived in this south Texas region.
Today, the U.S. Akaushi herd is not confined to the West but is spread across the country and consists of about 1,000 full-blooded Akaushi bulls and 8,700 full-blooded females. HeartBrand Beef sells full-blooded Akaushi bulls and semen, and markets its Prime and Choice beef under its own branded program.
Bill Fielding, CEO of HeartBrand Beef, says last year the company’s beef graded about 35% Prime and 88% Choice, with less than 2% grading Select. Most of the Select grades, he says, came with the southern cattle they procured.
“Today, we’re experiencing probably at 40 to 50% Prime because we have more northern cattle in the mix, and we’re only feeding to normal weights. They (the Akaushi) just marble quicker and better. That’s the real benefit,” Fielding explains.
The faster marbling is a signature trait of Akaushi genetics, which means the cattle place fat inside the muscle not on the outside. That means less waste. The Japanese Association of Akaushi has kept detailed data on every Akaushi for the last nine decades, breeding and testing for dozens of traits—everything from the color of the hide to how fast the hair grows to calving ease. HeartBrand and the AAA are as protective of these Akaushi genetics as the Japanese.
“To protect the genetics, we’ve done something that is different from any other breed. All the cattle have to be recorded with the American Akaushi Association,” Fielding says. “The program contract states that all percentage-blood bulls have to be castrated. That’s designed to make sure we don’t have someone cross a percentage-blood Akaushi bull with something else and then market those offspring as full-blood Akaushi. We go to great lengths to make sure that doesn’t happen.”
BREED IMPROVEMENTS. Bulls are the focus of HeartBrand’s business. Akaushi bulls, which weigh about 1,700 to 1,800 pounds at maturity, sell for $6,000 to $7,000. Producers buy the bulls, or the bull semen, mainly for the F1 cross potential, which has been shown to offer advantages to every other breed of cattle the Akaushi have been bred to thus far.
HeartBrand pays a 20-cent premium for each pound of DNA-verified Akaushi beef (HeartBrand pays for the testing). This is true even if the Akaushi is crossed with a breed not known for producing high-quality carcasses.
Bain says Akaushi have been crossed with 13 different breeds: English, Continental and American. In each case, they have doubled the grade and improved yield.
“No other breed can say that,” he insists. “The X factor in every case was the Akaushi bull.”
This is beef that qualifies for the coveted Kobe and Wagyu labels, and the expectation of outstanding taste and premium price those terms suggest. The beef also has higher levels of oleic acid (the good fat found in olive oil) and conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) than other beef, and has more monounsaturated fat than saturated fat. It’s not a lean product—it’s more of an anti-lean product—with its value and health benefits derived from its marbling.
“That’s where we think we can change the industry, by getting these genetics in all cows,” Fielding says.
HeartBrand is depending on the cow/calf producer to do just that. “The commercial cow/calf producer is the factory for HeartBrand beef,” says JoJo Carrales, vice president of cattle operations. “We will never be able to own enough cows to fill the demand. So we have to use the cow/calf guy who wants a premium to do things better.”
ROLL THE DICE. Other than paying more for the bull and raising calves to be USDA-certified as “natural,” producers don’t need to change much, if anything, about their operations to join the Akaushi program, Fielding says. He adds the current high price of all cattle makes buying in less of a gamble than it was a few years ago.
“Five years ago, when we tried to sell a $7,000 Akaushi bull, we were competing with average bull prices of $1,500 to $2,000. Now, bulls are in the ballpark of $5,000 to $6, 000,” Carrales says. “For producers to try one of these bulls they can’t pronounce, it isn’t as big a jump off the cliff anymore.”
Bain emphasizes Akaushi aren’t being bred and sold to capture a market in Japan, they are for U.S. consumers.
“We can’t make a U.S. product for the Japanese market,” he says. “We don’t want the commercial producer to change his practices. Just maximize your profit on these cattle, and let HeartBrand have them from there. Take your check, and go to the bank.”
“We want people to challenge us,” Fielding adds. “We know what these cattle can do. We’re frustrated that university, medical and beef industry leaders haven’t challenged us. We’re willing to bet the farm that we are right.”
Find Your Niche:
Modern domestic cattle evolved from a single early ancestor, the aurochs, some 10,000 years ago. Over the millennia, hundreds of breeds have been developed to fill particular niches. Want a small cow? There’s a breed for that. Need a pasture ornament? Ditto. Here’s a look at some of the more popular niche breeds today:
ALABAMA’S SOUTH POLL.The South Poll breed was created by Teddy Gentry, bass player for the group Alabama. He started his South Poll operation in Fort Payne, Ala. Gentry developed a breed he believes is ideally suited for the heat and humidity of the South, but is also tender and ideal for a grass-fed program. Gentry used the Hereford, Angus, Senepol and Barzona as his composite breeds to create a cow he dubs the “Southern Mama Cow.” They were bred with an emphasis on fertility, longevity and efficiency.
At about 1,000 pounds, the South Poll is smaller than a typical cow on the market today. Kathy Richburg, with the South Poll Grass Cattle Association, says South Polls generally cost $2,000 to $3,000. However, she notes five full-blooded heifers sold for $4,600 at the Houston Livestock Sale in March, while five bred half-bloods went for $2,700.
Learn more about South Polls at www.southpoll.com.
THE LITTLE DEXTER. Dexter bulls stand about 38 to 44 inches at the shoulder and weigh less than 1,000 pounds. The typical 3-year-old cow stands 36 to 42 inches at the shoulder and weighs about 700 pounds.
Dexters were bred small in southern Ireland for centuries, but their exact origins are a mystery. Becky Eterno, with the American Dexter Cattle Association, calls them a “manufactured miniature breed” to emphasize the difference between, say, a Miniature Hereford and the naturally small Dexter. The cattle come in black, dun and red, and can be horned or polled. Eterno says they produce a lot of milk for their size and have high cut-out percentages, even when finished on grass. Cows and bulls cost $1,000 to $1,500, with the red ones bringing a premium.
Learn more about Dexters at www.dextercattle.org.
EASY SIMANGUS. The SimAngus is a cross between a Simmental and an Angus. Brad Leen first bred the cattle when he worked for Carnation Dairy, in California. Today, he runs a SimAngus seedstock and commercial bull operation, Premier Beef, in Thrall, Texas.
Leen originally crossed Simmentals with Herefords, but he switched to purebred Simmentals infused with select Angus genetics. Today, the American Simmental Association sets the standards for the breed.
“The Charolais and Simmental grew the fastest and were the most impressive, but the Simmentals were more maternal,” Leen says. “I had to have something that was easy calving. I don’t have time to babysit the cattle. They have to give birth on their own.”
Learn more about the SimAngus at www.simmental.org.