By Heather Smith Thomas – The word Akaushi means red cow in Japanese. Akaushi cattle were introduced to the U.S. in 1994.
“This is the only free-grazing beef cattle breed in Japan,” says Bubba Bain, Executive Director of American Akaushi Association. “These cattle have been in existence as a distinct breed for more than 150 years and are a national treasure in Japan.”
Dr. Antonio Calles brought some to the U.S. when he was at Washington State University. “He saw that the Japanese were extremely healthy people. They don’t have problems with obesity or coronary heart disease and he wondered what they were doing different. The Japanese eat a lot of fish, but also consume a lot of beef. Dr. Calles started researching this, and found that meat from these animals had an abundance of oleic acid and mono-unsaturated fats. He imported eight cows and three bulls to the U.S. so he could build a herd and do more research to find out more about these cattle.”
Calles started doing embryo transfers to produce more of these cattle in a short time, and created more than 6,000 offspring from those original cattle in 15 years. Many Akaushi cattle are located at Harwood, Texas. “HeartBrand beef owns these cattle and sells or leases cattle to other breeders. Many new members have joined our American Akaushi Association, which was started in early 2010,” says Bain.
Akaushi cattle are known for consistent, tender, flavorful, juicy, highly marbled meat. “Even though the end product is important, this breed has not sacrificed any other important traits such as reproduction and performance to get to the end result.
Akaushi cattle will put a good calf on the ground and the calves give good weaning weight, yearling weight, efficiency in the feed yard, grade and yield well on carcasses—and give you that consistent excellent cut of meat we’re all looking for. This breed performs well for the cow-calf producer, the feeder and packer, efficient all the way down the chain,” he explains.“Carcasses on full-blood cattle are highly marbled and prime or prime plus,” says Bain. “We also have a lot of data on half-blood carcasses; Akaushi cattle cross extremely well with all breeds. We can double the grade and improve the yield on the offspring of any breed we put Akaushi on.”
The American Project
Dr. Calles brought eight unrelated cows and three unrelated bulls to this country in 1994. This was the nucleus to start a breeding herd. “When you do careful selective breeding with this number you can prevent inbreeding. You mate bull number one with eight cows, giving eight lines of cattle. You mate bull number two with the same eight cows to give another eight lines, and do the same with bull number three. We also started using embryo work and using reciprocal crosses on daughters of the three bulls, and switched bulls to create more lines. Our inbreeding coefficient with this system was between 5 and 5.6, which is very healthy. An unhealthy inbreeding coefficient would be 14% and higher. Many cattle breeds have an inbred coefficient of 35%, which is very high,” he says.
“We have additional sire lines from another population that is also pure, to avoid inbreeding problems. These sire lines came to this country earlier, in 1976. I was able to purchase semen from these bulls in the early 1980’s. We have that semen in hand and plan to use it to create more genetic diversity,” says Calles.
“Hopefully we can also obtain more semen from different bloodlines in Japan. We are working in a very precise way with this breed, to maintain all the important traits—fertility, productivity, milking ability, etc. with no problems— in every generation.”
The first 11 animals arrived in New York in November 1994 and stayed six months. “It was cold and wet that winter. Then they went to Wisconsin for several years. The first three winters it was between 10 and 22 below zero.
Then the cattle were sent to Texas. They came all the way from humid, hot weather of Kumamoto to New York, to Wisconsin, to Texas.” These imported cows were hardy and long-lived, still productive into their early 20s. Calles was able to generate a large number of embryos from these cows, which shows their high level of fertility.
“When the animals came to the U.S. the bulls were confined in a collection center. We didn’t retire them from collection until 2009; they were producing semen for many years. Two of the three survived into their 20s. What is amazing is that the bulls were kept confined and stayed sound. They were very functional and very healthy. Not very many bulls of other breeds stay fertile or survive for that many years with inactivity; they have problems with knees and feet,” he says. Akaushi bulls have excellent conformational structure.
The biggest challenge for this breed in America was to get enough numbers— starting with such a small group—to produce enough cattle to supply the demand. It took several years to be prepared to offer semen for cattle producers. Now a growing number of people in various states are raising some of these cattle.
Several Idaho breeders have obtained Akaushi cattle. In 2010, Shawn Ellis, near Blackfoot, Idaho, signed a cooperator agreement to raise Akaushi cattle for Heartland Brand Beef. Ellis received 60 cow-calf pairs (some full-bloods and some half-bloods crossed with Red Angus) in April 2010.
Jack Goddard, the northwest director for the American Akaushi Association says this Idaho herd is helping show people how the animals perform in a colder climate than Texas. They are also doing very well in rough rangeland conditions.
Delicious, Healthful Meat
Eating satisfaction is truly remarkable. Muscle fibers tend to be longer and thinner, which helps make meat more tender. The fatty acid composition is also different. When you cook this beef, you can pour the fat off into a cup, and at room temperature, it stays liquid. Regular pork or beef fat, if you leave it sitting there, will solidify to a hard, white fat. Akaushi fat doesn’t do that.
Today you can find Akaushi meat in leading restaurants across the country. When people taste it, they are impressed with the flavor. “The Akaushi produces healthful meat with a high ratio of mono-unsaturated to saturated fats,” says Bain.
“There’s also a high amount of oleic acid in Akaushi meat (the healthy ingredient in olive oil). It is extremely heart-healthy. Our research at Texas A&M indicates this.”
Dr. Antonio Calles says oleic acid is recognized by people in the medical community and the American Heart Association as the good fat for the heart. “Akaushi beef in any form gives the highest amount of oleic acid per square inch of meat,” he says.
Bill Fielding, CEO of HeartBrand Beef, says the health benefits are a big plus for the consumer. “Customers are asking for healthful, tasty products. We’re seeing growth of this aspect of the industry — whether it’s grass fed or all natural beef. People want a healthier product with better nutritional value, and something that will reduce their bad cholesterol instead of increasing it. We strongly believe that if the beef industry started using these genetics and changing the way cattle are fed, we could produce a product that is better for you than pork, chicken, buffalo or any other meat,” says Fielding.
Calles says that people have been told red meat will increase cholesterol. “Now we must educate people to the fact that these fats are good for you.” People who must be careful what they eat no longer have to reduce their intake of red meat. This is great news because meat contains many nutrients our body needs, such as vitamin B12, which is not found in a vegetarian diet.
“Red meat is a great source of all the amino acids to produce a complete protein. It’s a package of complete nutrients, combined with eating satisfaction. This is an opportunity for the cattle industry to create something sustainable, with additional health value to the consumer. We can produce many millions of pounds of meat in this country, but we need to produce high-quality beef that is healthy for the human body. If we can combine palatability with the health aspect, that’s the way the cattle industry will survive. Our meat now has to be healthier, raised with no chemicals, no hormones, no additives,” explains Calles. That’s the only way we can compete with other industries such as chicken, fish, pork.
Akaushi cattle are red, horned, more heat-tolerant than black animals, which is a major issue in southern states, and have low birth weights. The cows calve easily with no assistance. Fullblood males average 72 pounds at birth, and females 68 pounds. Adults are moderate size.
Bulls weigh 1,700 to 1,800 pounds and cows are 1,000 to 1,100 pounds.
Disposition is excellent. Akaushi cattle have been extensively handled for many generations, selected for ease of handling. “There are many things they do with them in Japan that we can’t even imagine; these are very docile cattle,” says Bain. People working with Akaushi cattle view them as part of their family.
“We don’t claim to be number one on weaning weights or yearling weights, but a rancher will never be embarrassed about the weights of Akaushi calves,” says Bain. “Fullblood calves wean at 500 to 600 pounds. Crossbred calves have been averaging 600 to 700 pounds at weaning because of heterosis,” he explains.
You get maximum heterosis when crossing animals that are totally unrelated, with wide genetic diversity.
These cattle are not related to American breeds. “This produces more hybrid vigor than when crossing two American breeds, because most of our breeds have become crossbreds already,” he says.
“The way the Japanese selected these animals and worked with them for many decades; we don’t have to worry about variation on productivity or performance traits, feed efficiency and feed conversion,” says Calles. “These traits were already selected and fixed for many years.
All we need to do is provide a good environment for them, with good care and low-stress management, and these animals will reach their genetic potential 100% of the time,” he says.
Akaushi cattle are very hardy in a variety of environments. “They were developed in Kumamoto, which latitude-wise is the same as between Austin and Temple, Texas, in a very hot and humid climate, so they do well in the southern part of our country. If you move them to the northern U.S. they do even better.
Any time you reduce humidity and temperature in summer, they have less stress and less trouble dissipating heat. They do very well in the north, with ability to grow a good hair coat to withstand cold winters,” he says.
“The reason these animals thrive in a variety of climates is because the Japanese government in the 1940s took some from Kumamoto and put them in Hokkaido—the same latitude as between Seattle, Washington and the Canadian border. In winter it’s very cold, with a lot of snow. It took the Japanese 50 years to select genetics that do well in cold, dry weather, and infused those genes back into the general population of the breed, to improve versatility to handle any environment,” says Calles.
If you are new to raising cattle, here’s a helpful guide to cattle farming for beginners.
Countryside also has an excellent overview of Highland cattle, which are also prized for their delicious meat.
Originally published in Countryside in 2014 and regularly vetted for accuracy.