A few days ago I went to a field day on the K Barr C Ranch in Osage County, Oklahoma, just across the Arkansas River from my home. The occasion was a Akaushi field day.
The Akaushi is a Japanese breed of cattle actually created by a government project that included as many as 150 scientists at one point and spanned more than 50 years. The story goes that these cattle were considered the property of the Japanese government and they were never to leave the Japanese islands. Somehow, through a series of events that are apparently obscured in a whirl of facts and legend three bulls and eight cows ended up in the US. I first wrote about these cattle in February 2008 and October 2007.
I think perhaps the most interesting thing, and the reason I'm telling you this story, is that these cattle were carefully and meticulously linebred (which is planned inbreeding) to create animals that would consistently produce super-Prime carcasses for the Japanese beef market, a specialty market which puts high monetary value on such things. This type of breeding, of course, is the very thing most cow-calf producers in America today are terrified of.
They shouldn't be, for several reasons.
First of all, well-linebred cattle are some of the genetically cleanest cattle possible, because those deleterious genes will come out in the wash when cattle are consistently linebred. If ever you can lay your hands on a copy of the Battle of Bull Runts, I highly recommend you read it. This was the story of the Hereford Association's work to run down and eliminate all the dwarf-producing cattle from the breed. I wrote a story about the lessons from that book in 2007.
One very sure test for such problems is to breed a bull to 16 of his daughters. I wrote about this idea with Mark Thallman of the US Meat Animal Research Center in June 2010.
Second, wisely linebred stock are more consistent in the traits they pass along to their offspring. This is why the chicken breeders and the pig breeders use exactingly linebred populations on either parental side to produce an extremely consistent F1 offspring for slaughter. That is, in fact, the ultimate reason for F1 animals, if they come from consistently linebred parent lines.
This sort of thing can be seen in the data that's beginning to pile up on the Akaushi cattle.
The American Akaushi Association, which was selling its wares at the field day in Oklahoma, is now offering Akaushi bulls for sale to non-Akaushi herds and offering a reasonable bonus to buy the calves from such matings. As we should expect, the crossbred calves from the aforementioned matings apparently are producing some fantastic carcass numbers.
On Red Angus cows they produced 56% Prime and 39% Premium Choice. On Charolais cows they produced 40% Prime and 45% Premium Choice. On Angus/Hereford cows they produced 49% Prime and 32% Premium Choice. On Beefmaster cows they produced 10% Prime and 47% Premium Choice, for example.
According to Akaushi Association Executive Director Bubba Bain, this is with a preponderance of Yield grade 3s. Further, these F1 fed cattle normally include a slightly lower number of Yield grade 4s than typical in high-quality-grading cattle and a slightly higher number of Yield grad 2s than you would expect.
Honestly, that's what I would expect from the F1 offspring of linebred cattle selected to produce super-Prime carcasses.
Bain adds that these numbers probably were produced in most cases by the lower end of people's cow herds, since most folks try something new on their poorest cows.
Part of the reason for this fine performance in feeding trials is the thing my friend Jim Lents calls prepotency. It means that linebred stock will pass on their genetic traits more consistently than can open-pollinated livestock.
The thing most livestock breeders don't get about linebreeding -- and I believe it's the reason they fear it -- is you will enforce all traits with equal force. That means if you have deleterious genes or just problems like bad udders and you do not cull them rigorously, you will get more of them.
Here's one more thing I found intriguing about these cattle. As I wrote about previously, the original breeder in the US took them from 11 animals to 5,000 animals in a few short years through embryo transfer and artificial insemination. Clearly, the emphasis was on numbers.
The cattle did fine but here's the mystery. There was still enough genetic variation to get quite a large variation in birthweights, an issue the purebred breeders are now working to select out of the breed. JoJo Carrales, who manages the Akaushi home ranch at Harwood, Texas, says the birthweight range of purebreds can still be as wide as from the mid 50-pound range to more than 100 pounds. The preponderance of birthweights are 65 to 70 pounds, but the extremes are about 60 pounds apart.
I'm ever a hawk on cow efficiency, as I don't believe a cow that produces all Prime calves would still be profitable if she couldn't make it on the ranch. So I asked J.D. Russell, manager of the Akaushi cattle on Spring Creek Ranch near Eureka, Kansas, how the cows perform on range.
He says they are fair, but again there is quite a bit of variance. Some just don't have enough gut capacity, spring of rib and overall thickness, but under selection pressure they are steadily improving.
Bain also says a deleterious gene which causes problems with blood clotting also has popped up from time to time in these cattle but is limited and is being bred against with prejudice.
Despite the consistency of these cattle in feeding and in appearance, the pressure placed on the population to increase numbers seems to have spread the genetic pool wider than it may have once been. Remember the American herd grew from a total of 11 animals, all of them fairly closely related to one another.
To me, this is a reminder that livestock breeders must be ever vigilant and ever hawkish on selecting against the unwanted and for the things wanted.