Aside from a select few breeds of cattle, most consumers enjoy their beef without thinking much about the type of beef. Certainly, Angus beef has considerable appeal, and Kobe beef (or wagyu beef in general) is known as a high-quality, high-price item. Beyond that, consumers may be aware of Hereford or Longhorn cattle, but they don’t get particular when looking to satisfy their beef craving.
A group of well-respected Texas beef industry professionals is looking to bring awareness to a new breed of cattle – at least, new to the United States. The Akaushi breed of cattle is a variety of wagyu cattle found in Japan, but the breed has gained a firm foothold in Texas. Domestically, the Akaushi breed and its valuable genetics are controlled by HeartBrand Beef, based in Harwood, Texas. The principals of the company came from the processing side of the beef industry to the marketing side after seeing the potential of the breed.
Jordan Beemen, president of HeartBrand Beef, and his father Ronald were the former owners of Eddy Packing, a Yoakum, Texas, processor. They were first introduced to the Akaushi breed after being asked to slaughter some of the offspring of the original cattle brought to the United States. They continued to act as a service provider before buying all the assets – the cattle and the genetic information – of the breed in 2006. They sold Eddy Packing in 2011, devoting themselves to HeartBrand beef full-time.
“The thought of being able to produce such high-quality beef drove us into that business,” he says. “It all revolved around what the full-blooded Akaushi cattle could do -- even crossing them, how well they worked.”
Bill Fielding, the chief executive officer, was intrigued enough by the cattle to come out of a self-described semi-retirement. Fielding, a member of the Meat Industry Hall of Fame, has more than 30 years of experience in the industry, working for companies like Cargill, ConAgra, Creekstone Farms and Meyer Natural Foods. He had plenty of experience working with branded beef programs in the past, but he was unfamiliar with the Akaushi cattle until being introduced to them by the Beemans.
“When [I was] at Excel, we spent millions of dollars on how we could identify the best cattle: what was good for the producer, the feed lot, the packing plant and the consumer,” he says. “Each piece of the puzzle was extremely important.
“In almost all cases, we might find a breed where there might be 2 or 3 pluses, but there would be a couple minuses, and for one piece of that puzzle, they might not be as good,” he adds.
Fielding did due diligence on the breed, looking at the data that the Beemans provided as well as consulting some industry associates. He found that the breed offers many, many upsides and few downsides.
The meat from the Akaushi cattle is very marbled, but the fat is significantly lower in saturated fat and cholesterol and higher in monounsaturated fat and Conjugated Linoleic Acid (CLA). CLA is a beneficial fatty acid that has had a number of health benefits attributed to it, including anticancer properties and weight management. CLA is naturally found in animal protein but typically in small amounts, but Akaushi beef is different.
“The meat has a positive ratio of monounsaturated to saturated fatty acids, a ratio of about 1.4 on the full-bloods,” Beeman says.
“Other medical research has shown that a higher intake of unsaturated fat is healthier for preventing heart disease,” says JoJo Carrales, vice president of operations for HeartBrand Beef. “What’s unique for us is that we are the only animal protein that has a positive ratio of unsaturated fat.”
The healthful qualities of the beef make for a great selling point, but like any protein, it has to taste good to get any customers. Fortunately, that’s another strong suit of the meat. Heartbrand has consistently seen an overwhelming amount of the Akaushi beef graded at Prime or Choice. The tenderness and taste of the beef has led to it being featured in many fine steakhouses in Texas, and the popularity is spreading.
Fielding notes that the quality of the beef is consistent, whether it came from a full-blood animal or a cross-breed. At some ranches, Fielding notes that some carcasses from an Akaushi-Limousin cross yielded 30 percent prime.
“With those cattle you’d be lucky to have 25% Choice and no Prime,” he adds. “The only difference is the bull. Week after week seeing [results like] that, it’s something we’ve come to believe should be in all cattle everywhere in the world.”
From Japan to Texas
The Akaushi cattle have been bred in Japan for over 100 years, but they only came to the United States in 1994. As the result of a loophole in the Trade Act of 1992 between the two countries, a small group of cattle were flown out of Japan in a specially equipped Boeing 747. Some of the original animals still live at the HeartBrand ranch in Harwood, but Heartbrand has sold cattle across the country, from Georgia, Florida, Kansas and as far north as Montana. Regardless of the weather conditions, the animals have performed well.
HeartBrand Beef does not do its own processing; that is handled by Caviness Beef Packers, which has its fabrication facility in nearby Hereford and a further processing facility in Amarillo for ground beef. HeartBrand manages the genetics of the animals, along with the American Akaushi Association. The company and the association manage the genetics of the animals very carefully, so there are some restrictions on how the bulls can be used, for example. Fielding explains that maintaining strict quality standards is the best way to ensure a consistent and quality supply of beef. Consistent quality will in turn lead to consistently high premiums.
“If we opened it up and just sold bulls, it would be the easiest thing in the world, but we have the standards that we believe are important to maintain,” he says. “Some people out of principle say they don’t want to be restricted in how they use that bull. We try to help them understand that it’s in everyone’s best interest to keep the integrity of this program and make it so that people can profit from doing so.”
The producer can, at any point in the animal’s life, sell it back to HeartBrand, and the cattle are sent to the Caviness plant for slaughter. Producers aren’t required to sell the cattle to HeartBrand, but the company does pay them a premium to do so. Carrales notes that each animal is tracked from birth to processing. Each cow in the program is DNA verified as Akaushi, and information on the sire, growth and meat grading is kept for each animal.
“When you look at a carcass, we will know where he’s from, what ranch he was on, [its sire] and how long he’s been fed,” he says. “We use that information on our end to try and be a little more efficient, like if we need to feed them a little longer or shorter.”
Word about Akaushi cattle is spreading, and many ranchers who buy one bull to “try out” the animal on their herd are coming back to purchase more after seeing how the offspring performed. As the supply of Akaushi beef increases, so has the number of stores and restaurants that feature it.
Bohanon’s Prime Steaks and Seafood in San Antonio was the first restaurant to feature HeartBrand’s beef. Other steakhouses have picked up on the product as well, trying to offer a higher-end product than the competition. For those restaurants, taste is of paramount importance.
“The story is a very nice add-on, and now with menus being much more story-oriented, it definitely does help. But the first thing is the quality of the beef,” Beeman says. “If I’m trying to sell the product, the first thing I want them to do is just try the beef. This beef, compared to whatever they’re currently buying, is going to be more palatable. That’s the easiest sell we can do.”
Akaushi beef is showing up in more than steakhouses. Several small hamburger chains are also featuring Akaushi beef, including Burger Monger, which has several locations in the Philadelphia and Tampa, Fla., areas. Burger Monger was an instance where the foodservice operator came to HeartBrand, not the other way around.
“Their philosophy was that they wanted the very best of each product they did, whether it was ground beef or ice cream,” Fielding says. After doing taste tests with various all-natural programs, they concluded Akaushi beef was the best, and Burger Monger’s management came out to Texas to tour the HeartBrand ranch, as well as the Caviness plant and the Bovina feed yard, where Akaushi cattle are finished.
“It was nice to see, as a customer, that they wanted to understand the whole process,” Fielding notes. “These people from the outside determined on their own that Akaushi was the best they could have.”
HeartBrand also supplies beef to some Texas retailers and offers steaks, ground beef, franks and sausages through its own online store.
Texas All-Star Team
The Akaushi breed may still be making headway in the United States, there is a wealth of experience and a strong track record behind it. The American Akaushi Association’s executive director, Bubba Bain, has been involved in the cattle industry for more than 35 years, including serving as a director of field services for a breed association. He and his wife, Janie, helped launch the association in 2009. She serves as office manager.
“There hadn’t been a pure-bred association established in about 30 years,” he said. “It took a little bit of doing, because some of the rules and regulations were a little outdated.”
The Association now has more than 180 members and is planning its third annual convention later this year. Janie Bain notes that one of the hurdles the Association has had to overcome has been to connect with ranchers who may have been burned in the past by breed programs that didn’t last.
“There are a lot of programs that have gone by the wayside, where promises were made but not kept,” she says. The consistent performance of the cattle and the premiums the ranchers get from HeartBrand has gone a long way toward convincing them the program is here to stay.
HeartBrand also benefits from having a well-respected company like Caviness Beef Packers as a partner. Much like the Beeman family, the Caviness family has been involved in the beef industry for several generations and has a reputation as a high-quality company. Fielding has known the family for years and talked with them for two years before Caviness began slaughtering the Akaushi cattle.
“We just beat on their door until they let us in,” Beeman jokes. “Our numbers finally got large enough.”
Along with processing the cattle, Caviness also provides the grading data back to HeartBrand, which is in turn used by HeartBrand to further improve the genetics of the herd.
“You can tell they really believe in the program, because it’s less cattle that they’re usually killing and it’s more work,” Carrales notes. “They provide all the information, and it does take extra personnel and extra work on their end to give what we have to have to be completely sourced for the sake of the program.”
It is unusual for a relatively new venture to have such a wealth of experience behind it, but Fielding says that part of the fun is seeing the program grow, with the potential to help the whole industry.
“It’s the ideal situation to try and combine knowledge over the years on what could work and help young guys like Jordan and JoJo,” Fielding says.
HeartBrand has been growing at a 50 percent rate every year. Beeman believes that in five years, the company could be killing 40,000 head a year or more. With those numbers, the company may need to add on a second packer to supply the beef, but one thing is certain: HeartBrand Beef is not getting into the beef packing business. Ever.
I am never going to be involved with owning another packing plant,” Fielding says, laughing. “I’ve had that fun, I don’t need it again.