When consumers buy beef, there is an expectation of consistency of product in quality and value. Meeting consumer expectations determines the price they are willing to pay and how much product they will buy at that price. These characteristics are determined by both genetics and the environment.
While improvements in eating quality can be achieved through relatively short-term feeding strategies, the genetic impacts on eating quality are the result of years of careful planning of breeding the right females and using the right sires.
Buying the right bulls is therefore an important consideration.
Meat Standards Australia is an eating quality grading system for Australian beef. The MSA Index is the standard national measure of eating quality and potential carcase merit, that can be used across all processors, geographic regions and over time.
It reflects how management, environmental and genetic differences impact eating quality. The Index is a number between 30 and 80 that is the weighted average of the predicted MSA eating quality scores of the entire carcase (39 cuts). A higher MSA Index indicates a carcase has a higher predicted eating quality.
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Eligibility for an MSA Index requires carcases meet the following minimum requirements:
- Meet MSA pre-slaughter requirements
- pH less than 5.7
- Minimum rib fat of 3mm
- Adequate fat cover over all major primals
Ninety-four percent of carcases met MSA minimum requirements in 2017-2019. The main reasons for non-compliance, were high pH (greater than 5.7) and fat cover (less than 3mm of rib fat).
It pays to be MSA compliant. Processors often pay premiums for MSA compliance and compliance to eating quality specifications. MLA (2019) estimated that during 2017-2019, young cattle (grass fed and 0-2 tooth) that met MSA and processor requirements on average, received an extra $0.27/kg over-the-hooks compared to non-MSA cattle. For animals of an average weight of 304kg, this equates to an extra $80.56/head (MLA, 2019).
Influencing carcase traits
There are a number of production and management factors that affect eating quality, but an animal's genetic makeup is also important.
The two biggest things producers can influence are marbling and fat cover, but as Dr Steph Fowler, NSW Department of Primary Industries, Cowra, NSW, explains.
"The challenge is that the best possible practice to ensure meat quality may not always be possible in commercial situations. For example, drought feeding where it is difficult to get a supply of quality feed or not possible to hold cattle for long enough on feed to maximise eating quality traits," she said.
"Feed type doesn't impact eating quality, but it can influence carcase traits that do impact eating quality.
"The time on feed can influence the level of marbling, but it is important to balance this with increased fat cover as animals spend longer periods on feed. The key to ensuring the development of marbling is to finish cattle on a rising plane of nutrition."
Selection of sires with superior EBVs for docility, eye muscle area , rib and rump fat, and carcase weight can improve MSA compliance, while selection of sires with high EBVs for growth rates (200, 400 and 600 day weights), Intra Muscular Fat (IMF), rib fat and carcase weight will increase MSA Index values.
Rib fat thickness and fat covering are critical for protection of primal cuts from rapid chilling, which can cause toughening. It also improves eating quality and appearance.
Using sires with high EBVs for rib and rump fat will assist in adequate fat covering, but be careful to balance the negative effect that higher levels of rib fat can have on carcase yield.
Temperament plays a large part, with quieter animals having higher muscle glycogen levels at slaughter resulting in greater lactate production post slaughter and a lower pH , thus reducing the chance of dark cutting.
The first step in breeding animals with good temperament is finding a bull breeder that supplies docility EBVs. The next step is to identify bulls that are superior for this EBV.
The Limousin breed has made major advances in docility in the last 20 years and this advantage can now be used by commercial producers.
Poor nutrition, excessive stress and poor handling will also lower muscle glycogen levels, increasing the chance of dark cutting. Research also shows that animals with higher muscle content (higher EMA), have a reduced incidence of dark cutting, so finding bulls with superior muscling EBVs is another important consideration. Research has also reported a significantly higher EMA for Limousin sired cattle compared with Angus cattle feed under exactly the same conditions.
Reducing an animal's ossification score will assist in increasing the MSA Index. Selecting sires with higher with 200, 400 and 600 day growth rates means calves will grow quicker, reaching target weights at a younger age and with a lower ossification score. Using fast growing breeds helps to guarantee animals will be hit target weights at younger ages.
Andrew Hare, Bindoon, Western Australia joins his Limousin-Shorthorn females to Limousin bulls, turning off around 100 calves (350-400kg) a year selling directly to Princi butchers.
"We used to sell our calves through the saleyards and noticed one butcher would always buy them. Michael Princi then approached us asking to buy our calves directly off-farm. That was about 30 years ago and the partnership is still going strong," he said.
"We have been using Limousin bulls since Dad first saw them at a field day in the eastern states in the late 1970s. The Limousin breed gives us the extra muscle, kilos and overall yield we are looking for."
When buying bulls, Andrew focuses on carcase EBVs (growth rates, IMF, retail beef yield and rib fat) and docility.
"While handling and management are important, we can also go a long way to meeting market specs through buying the right bulls," he said.
They calve from January-May and sells the calves in one lot in late November-December.
Average EBVs for carcase traits for the 2018 born calves registered on the Australian Limousin Breeders' Society database are shown in Table 2. The newly released Limousin indexes are focused on improving progeny's MSA score and will see these traits continue to improve.
Toni Nugent is a communications and engagement specialist in the agricultural industry. This article was commissioned by the Australian Limousin Breeders Society.