FOR a West Texas cattleman out of San Angelo, once exclusively Longhorns territory, Aaron Cooper knows a lot about Japanese cows and bulls.
His specialty is the Akaushi breed, which is often referred to as Red Wagyu and is commonly mistaken as simply a colour variation of the Black Wagyu renowned for its fat marbling.
His knowledge is not surprising, since Texas is home to the world’s largest full-blood Akaushi breeding herd outside of Japan.
It is also home to the HeartBrand Beef operation, global leader in Akaushi cattle, genetics and branded beef production.
Thanks primarily to HeartBrand’s effective marketing, Akaushi as a cattle breed and as a ‘brand’ of premium beef is more widely recognised by United States consumers than Wagyu, supporters of the Japanese breeds agree.
Dr Cooper, who has an animal science degree from Texas A&M University and a Masters degree in animal breeding and genetics from University of Nebraska, has worked with HeartBrand.
He guided a breeding program which produces 3000 full-blood cows and sells 400-500 bulls a year for HeartBrand which markets premium branded beef from about 10,000 Akaushi-blood cattle throughout the US and overseas – including in Japan before he started his own consultancy in 2016.
As an acknowledged Akaushi genetics expert and head of 33 Ventures LLC, Dr Cooper continues to advise HeartBrand and cattle breeders across the US, Australia, South America and South Africa.
On his fourth visit to Australia, he was accompanied this month by HeartBrand president Jordan Beeman who has headed the American Akaushi Association – his parents Ron and Joan and HeartBrand itself are association life members and Dr Cooper is a registered full-blood breeder member.
They attended a three-day quarterly scientific retreat at the CY O’Connor Centre for Innovation in Agriculture at North Dandalup.
Other guests included Larry Ludeke, also from Texas and president of the American International Charolais Association, Bruce Campbell, Cooara Charolais stud, Keysbrook and Victorian bovine embryologist Dominic Bayard, who breeds cattle as Goorambat Wagyu and who transfers and exports embryos as Global Reproduction Solutions.
Some of the discussion at the retreat related to merits of the Akaushi breed and potential benefits to local herds through introduction of Akaushi genetics.
According to Dr Cooper, the Akaushi breed “is a more complete beef production animal, both from the maternal and terminal aspects”, than Wagyu.
Akaushi look more like traditional heavy-framed beef cattle and have a better carcase.
They are fertile, produce good weight calves and as good mothers look after them with more milk than Wagyu cows produce, Dr Cooper said.
They are hardy, tolerate heat, gain weight quickly and efficiently, can be finished at 18-24 months in a feedlot and produce flavoursome beef with the intense fat marbling of Wagyu and less trim fat than other breeds, he said.
Like Wagyu, Akaushi beef contains a higher concentration of monounsaturated fat relative to saturated fat – basically, more ‘good’ low-melting-point fat that is readily metabolised and less ‘bad’ fat that builds up around internal organs and can cause health problems.
It is also a good source of oleic acid, the main constituent of olive oil.
Medical research is showing these factors – higher caloric intake of monounsaturated fats combined with oleic acid – contribute to a low incidence of cardiovascular disease in people with Mediterranean-style diets.
Dr Cooper said importantly, Akaushi interbreed very well with Wagyu and many other breeds with their advantageous traits transferred to first and second-cross progeny.
In Texas, Akaushi bulls are mainly crossed with “British-based breeds” such as Hereford, but may also be crossed with Brangus or Santa Gertrudis to improve production “efficiency” and end-product “eating quality”, he said.
Dr Cooper said initially Akaushi beef was marketed in the US on its healthier qualities compared to other beef.
“But the marketing has changed and the better health aspect is now a sideline,” he said.
“The main marketing impetus is around the eating experience, the better flavour and texture of the Akaushi beef is what continues to sell the product.
“The American consumer likes a thick steak and wants to feel full and satisfied at the end of the meal.
“The marbling enables that and has a consistency something like butter and a nutty flavour which they really like.
“From a restaurant perspective, you can tell people Akaushi beef is the healthiest around and customers will try it.
“But it has to have the flavour and the texture they expect from a premium steak otherwise they won’t order it again.”
Dr Cooper confirmed “the Akaushi influence” was still developing in the US – Texas ranchers used a since closed loophole in trade legislation with Japan to import eight Akaushi cows and three bulls in the mid 1990s which became the foundation herd.
That foundation herd is the source of most Australian Akaushi bloodlines, but Australia is lagging a long way behind in utilising the breed’s traits, he said.
“In my view, Australian cattle producers are leaving a lot of money on the table by not adopting Akaushi genetics,” Dr Cooper said.
But that could change with an ongoing sharing of information between WA and US Akaushi breeders, shared scientific studies and a local involvement in a US-based breeding program.
As previously reported in Farm Weekly, the CY O’Connor Centre for Innovation in Agriculture was founded by collaboration between Murdoch University, the CY O’Connor ERADE (Education, Research and Development, Employment) Village Foundation and Tillbrook Melaleuka Group (TMG).
Professor Roger Dawkins, a great grandson of legendary civil engineer Charles Yelverton O’Connor and an international authority on immunogenetics and autoimmune disease, was the visionary behind its creation.
TMG is a Dawkins family company run by his son John who oversees a vertically integrated commercial beef operation with Akaushi, Wagyu and Simmental herds on farms near North Dandalup, Nambeelup and Waroona.
The beef operation is conducted in tandem with various genetics, DNA profiling and pasture research projects by scientists mentored through the foundation.
It supplies restaurants at CY O’Connor Village Pub, Piara Waters, and Hybla Tavern, Middleton Beach, Albany – a Dawkins family business offshoot – with TMG’s ‘Melts’ long-fed marbled Black Wagyu and short-fed Simmental first-cross Akaushi beef.
There are plans for a third tavern next year and “burger bars” to be co-located with the taverns to expand TMG’s range of Akaushi beef products.
John Dawkins visited Texas and HeartBrand in 2015, inspecting feedlots with up to 80,000 cattle and learning about the breed.
Since then TMG’s Akaushi herd has grown to the point where “we have more reds than blacks” and has superseded Wagyu as preferred commercial cross with Simmental cows, Mr Dawkins said.
“In our own (TMG) program, with a full-blood red bull over Simmental females we are able to get the same weight gains and carcase weight in our first cross as we get in Simmental, but we also get the marbling as well,” he said.
“The trick they (Akaushi) have over the black (Wagyu) is that they can improve normal beef and fit into our short-fed program.
“In our 100-day program the first crosses do extraordinarily well – you wouldn’t get that with the blacks and you wouldn’t get the marbling to the same extent in that time frame.”
Mr Dawkins said TMG planned to set up a “small but not insignificant” breeding program in Texas in collaboration with Dr Cooper, starting with about 30 head and looking to improve the breed.
First aim is to produce a Poll animal.
“The plan is we can send embryos in both directions,” he said.
“There’s been a lot of support from Murdoch (University) and from State and Federal governments for it (the Texas collaboration).”
Meanwhile Mr Dawkins said genetic testing and haplotypes (sections of genetic material that determine certain characteristics) testing is continuing to achieve homozygous (two copies of the same haplotype) consistency in first cross genetics.
Apart from “tremendous potential” to improve production of northern Australian cattle through infusion of Akaushi genetics, he said TMG and the CY O’Connor Centre were hoping to investigate potential improvement in dairy herds.
“By identifying the right haplotype it might be possible to give dairy farmers something to sell by increasing the size of their calves,” Mr Dawkins said.
Within its own Akaushi expansion program, Mr Dawkins said TMG was considering a “buy-back” system similar to that offered by HeartBrand in the US where it sold bulls to breeder clients and offered to buy DNA-certified half-blood progeny for its branded beef program at market price plus a guaranteed premium.
Dr Cooper said he could foresee awareness of the Akaushi breed and its merits growing in Australia over the “next four to five years”.
“I see much potential for it,” he said.
“Whether we are talking about the northern part of the continent where you can cross them with a heavier bos Indicus or Brahman type female or whether you come down to a red-hided bos Indicus or a British based breed such as a Shorthorn, all those combinations are going to work very well.
“We’ve seen that work exceptionally in America.”