Niche player

by Bernard Shire
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Bill Fielding, HeartBrand Beef
An industry veteran, Bill Fielding, CEO of HeartBrand Beef, has turned his attention to bringing Akaushi Beef to the US cattle industry.

It’s been quite an evolution for Bill Fielding, a veteran of the meat and food industry with years spent working for some high-profile companies. For 27 years, Fielding worked for Cargill, where he managed soybean plants, served as president of Excel Inc., president of the company’s flour milling division, president of the worldwide meat sector, and for eight years served on the Cargill Executive Committee. As part of the senior management team, he was on the compensation and long-range planning committees.

Following his tenure with Cargill, Fielding served as president of the ConAgra Refrigerated Meats Division. He was also CEO of Creekstone Foods, and held top positions with Meyer Natural Foods and Farmland. He is a past chairman of AMI, now the North American Meat Institute. Three years ago, he was inducted into the Meat Industry Hall of Fame.

But for the past seven years, Fielding has been doing something quite different. He’s been CEO and president of HeartBrand Beef, based in Flatonia, Texas, a specialty company in the massive American beef industry.

HeartBrand is a niche player, but one that Fielding has been growing – one that he hopes will play an increasingly important role in changing the basics of the American beef industry.

Specialty beef

All the products made by HeartBrand are certified Akaushi Beef, coming from Akaushi cattle – certified by the American Akaushi Association. Akaushi, which means “red cow” in Japanese, is a Japanese Wagyu breed of cattle. Wagyu, which means Japanese cow, is any of several breeds of cattle, the most desired of which is genetically predisposed to intense marbling and to producing oleic acid, a heart-healthy fatty acid and unsaturated fat. Wagyu beef is shipped carrying names representing their region of origin, the best known being Kobe beef.

Wagyu cattle’s genetic predisposition yields a beef that contains a higher percentage of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids than typical beef. The nucleus of the Akaushi herd was brought to the US in 1994, due to a loophole in a trade agreement between the US and Japan. The same closed herd and multi-trait selection process used in Japan is now used in the United States by members of the American Akaushi Association.

Coupled with the recorded parentage of US born calves, the lineage of the American Akaushi can be traced back over 30 generations to the origins of the breed. So American Akaushi cattle are 100 percent pure and are direct descendents of the Mount Aso region’s revered Akaushi herds. The American Akaushi Association, which controls Akaushi cattle in the US, is headquartered at HeartBrand Beef.

Fielding didn’t grow up in a ranching or agriculture family, but comes from a small town in Kansas, about 50 miles from Wichita, “in the center of oil fields and farms.” When he was 16, he spent a summer in England and when it was time to go to college he attended the Univ. of Copenhagen in Denmark. After his junior year, he came home to attend Washburn Univ. in Topeka, Kan.

Big Al, the Akaushi herd sire
Big Al, pictured here at age 15, was the Akaushi herd sire.

“The day after I graduated, I went to work for Cargill,” Fielding says. “I got involved with the beef business when Cargill bought Excel, and I became president of Excel, and that was 35 years ago.”

Fielding was working for Stubbs, a Texas barbecue company, when he found out about Akaushi cattle. He went to visit Eddy Packing in Yoakum, Texas, to see if they could do business together.

“Eddy Packing was very successful. The owner at the time, Ronald Beeman, built that plant up from nothing,” Fielding says. “So I was over there, visiting with Beeman, and he told me all about Akaushi cattle. Over the next five or six months, I started looking into this. When I saw what was going on – that Akaushi cattle graded 75 percent prime, for example – I felt that these cattle and their genetics could help the entire cattle industry in the US,” Fielding says.

Because of his extensive experience in the beef industry, Fielding was called in to help the Akaushi program at HeartBrand Beef. He had a vision for the beef industry that he’s pursuing today: to get the (Akaushi) genetics out into the beef industry throughout the US, Canada and other western countries.

“If that happens, there will be a much higher level of prime and choice meat in the beef business – more like 35 percent prime. The average now nationally in the beef industry is only about 2 percent,” he says.

So today, Akaushi genetics are controlled by Fielding and a group of Texans under the name of HeartBrand Beef. He says HeartBrand Beef is producing natural Akaushi meat under rigorous quality guidelines and certified product testing in a source-verified, vertically integrated production system. Currently, the largest purebred group of Wagyu cattle outside of Japan is a herd of Akaushi cattle owned by HeartBrand Beef.

The Akaushi movement has come a long way and it continues to progress, but it didn’t start out that way. “In the beginning, there were eight cows and three bulls brought over from Japan. It’s been built to a herd of 3,000. Fielding and Beeman got into the business together. They sell between 300 and 400 bulls every year, and they sell semen to ranches. The ranches grade 25 percent prime meat with the HeartBrand bulls, as opposed to a large amount of select and choice meat.

“We want to put them in with Angus and Charolais cattle – we have a lot of cattle in Montana, Idaho, Oregon, Louisiana and Florida. By selling the semen for use with different types of beef cattle, when we cross the cattle, the meat, instead of being tough, improves and becomes much better,” Fielding says.

He says breeding practices and air temperatures in various countries are very important factors when it comes to breeding cattle. For example, black-hide cattle aren’t desirable in hot weather countries. Instead, red-hide cattle are preferable. And artificial insemination is the desired way of working Akaushi genetics into beef cattle. Recently, HeartBrand signed a long-term agreement with Origine in the state of Tocantins in Brazil. Origine is the exclusive genetic partner outside the US to promote the growth of the Akaushi genetics worldwide.

“There is a lot of artificial insemination in Brazil, and since we sell semen, that makes it much easier to crossbreed and pass on the genetics,” Fielding says. “In the US it’s harder because you need more bulls to get the genetics into other kinds of cattle. Artificial insemination using the semen is much easier.” He says he would like to see more artificial insemination in the US.

Continued Growth

All the products made by HeartBrand are certified Akaushi Beef.
All the products made by HeartBrand are certified Akaushi Beef, coming from Akaushi cattle.

Fielding’s goal is to grow the company as quickly as possible, spreading the Akaushi genetics as widely in the beef industry as possible. “If I was still running Excel today, I would do everything possible to expand with this kind of cattle,” he says.

Health and wellness benefits are a key part of the importance of Akaushi cattle in the beef industry. The cattle produce meat that contains a high amount of intramuscular fat, normally called marbling. This meat is healthier for consumers due to its unique fatty acid composition when compared to other domestic beef. The meat is very tender, juicy and flavorful, and is considered by the Japanese and many beef experts to be the most palatable, yet healthy beef in the world. These attributes are making Akaushi beef more desirable to Western consumers than other meat.

But as important as the health and wellness aspect of Akaushi beef is, it’s not the top priority right now – not yet anyway, Fielding says. The most important selling point of the Akaushi beef is the consistency of the meat.

“The truth is that one of the great problems the beef industry has had in this country for a long time is the product’s lack of consistency. That’s something we’re addressing with the Akaushi cattle, and our effort to move the genetics more and more into the general beef industry,” he says.

Fielding admits his mindset has evolved and changed from working with commodity-type companies to now leading a very specialized niche company with a focus on health and wellness.

“Cargill was a great company, in both commodity and volume,” he says. “At Excel, we had a program similar to Certified Angus. Our goal was always to make the product more consistent. With what I know now, and being involved in this small specialized company, it would be great to be able to take this back to where I once was. But it’s great to be doing something so different, and better, something I really believe in.”

He notes his approach and HeartBrand’s approach is very different from some of the other companies he’s worked for. “We do DNA on every single animal. All our bulls are 100 percent Akaushi. No one else can do what we do to trace back to the original cattle,” he says. “With calves, we can prove through the DNA they’re 50 percent Akaushi – no one else can do that.”

What does that DNA prove? “It assures that the quality and consistency is there. That’s not to say that other people aren’t doing natural products – they are, like Meyer Natural Foods, which is a very good company,” he says.

“But the majority of producers aren’t doing that,” Fielding says. “We make sure our breed is protected – no one else is protecting the breed like we do. Most breeds, for example, are controlled by the producers. In other breeds, outside the Akaushi, the cattle have been sold two or three times, so there’s no protection. But our breed is different.”

Fielding knows that customer expectations of HeartBrand Beef are different than for some other companies. “They have great expectations for the integrity of our products, and that our products are source-verified,” he says. “So far, our customers have more of an expectation of product consistency, more so than the healthiness and wellness of the products, even though that is important. I think that concern about product consistency is just a result of problems with consistency in the overall beef market. So naturally they would be interested in that factor,” he says.

The other major interest Fielding has right now is marketing and growing the company. That takes time and money. “We’re five or six times bigger than we were five years ago,” he says. “But we have a long way to go. First, we need to get a lot more cattle, over the next two, three and four years.” Counting the full-blooded cattle and those under contract to HeartBrand, they have about 8,000.

Fielding believes that a successful career and life, for that matter, is full of changes, and things never stay the same. “If you’re not growing and changing, you’re not getting anywhere, you’re moving backwards,” he says. “Today won’t work tomorrow, as I’ve discovered during my career. You have to be driven to discover and find new ways of doing things.”

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