The Meat-Quality Matrix

Words by Ceri Lewis – AngusPRO magazine 2022

There are many parts to the matrix that go into producing a high-quality beef product.

The most important part of this matrix by far is marbling or intramuscular fat (IMF), which gives the meat its tenderness, juiciness, flavour and texture, and if the animal does not havethe genetic propensity to marble, then no amount of feeding or management will make it magically appear.

One of the many benefits of incorporating IMF into your herds is that it’s what we call a free trait in that you don’t have to compromise any other traits to include it in your selection criteria, unlike growth for example, which while it does have some benefits, it also has arguably an undesirable impact in terms of increasing mature cow weight and, in turn, the maintenance feed and wintering costs of your cow herd.

If you have made the smart decision to include IMF in your selection criteria and you are starting from a low base, then selecting bulls with an IMF EBV in the top 25% of the breed is going to give you a big injection of marbling straight away. There are other tools available when deciding which heifers to retain in the herd and which to quit, such as carcass scanning the heifers for IMF and using genomic tools such as Zoetis’ HeiferSELECT product. By retaining the higher marbling heifers, you will make much faster genetic progress in marbling and in getting their progeny to hit those target markets and premiums.

Feeding is key and ideally the steers and surplus heifers that you are targeting for these markets should be growing every day you have them, which of course also helps with the profitability of the system as every day you are feeding them is costing you money. By selecting bulls that have a short maturity pattern (positive rib and rump fat EBVs) and moderate rather than excessive growth, the progeny will reach a level of finish and fat cover for the target market at a younger age. In my experience, selecting bulls that are about breed average EBV for 600-day growth is sufficient to reach 300kg carcass weight at about 20 months old, which also seems to be the sweet spot for getting 90% plus of the animals into the top end of the premiums. This will not be the same for everyone and will depend on the genetic makeup of your herd.

The third part of the matrix is the management of the cattle, as the pH and colour of the meat is critical to the eating experience. Cattle are potentially a very valuable commodity and to have them disqualified from the premium programs when they have met the marbling and weight criteria (which should be the hard part) can be very frustrating.

There are two parts to the management matrix. The first is genetic. Cattle that are genetically docile have a much better chance of meeting the markets than animals that are unsettled. A lot of work and data has gone into the Docility EBV that is available for Australian animals and will soon be available for AngusPRO cattle, and like all EBVs they are accurate and work well. Selecting bulls that are positive for docility and by culling any females that play up when in the yards will ensure you give yourself every opportunity to hit the premiums.

The second half of the management matrix is how the animals are handled during their lifetime. Yard weaning calves is a great start if you have the facilities to do so. Following that, the design and flow of your cattle yards is very important. The cattle should be treated with respect in the yards and you should never make it an unpleasant or stressful experience for them. We never use sticks in the yards, rather we move the cattle with body movement and using our arms to guide them, and we let them know where we are all the time by using our voices. The cattle shouldn’t be boxed up with other groups less than six weeks from slaughter as there are dominant animals in each group and the re-ranking process influences their stress levels, and changing their diet up to six weeks before slaughter will negatively affect the pH. Pre- slaughter, the trip to the yards should be a quiet affair without huntaways, just quiet heading dogs. Standing the animals in the yard for an hour to settle (after being emptied out in a holding paddock overnight) is beneficial, as is a double deck loadout ramp. Getting buy-in from the stockmen and women and truck drivers is obviously key as so much can potentially negatively impact your result in the last few hours.

Finally, there are Angus seed stock producers and even individuals selling semen, that often have their heads in the sand by attempting to discredit and rubbish high IMF Angus cattle by saying they are structurally unsound, lack fertility and a host of other fictions. These claims are completely unfounded. These breeders and individuals have hidden agendas, the biggest being they are very afraid they are going to get left behind (and they will be) because they are breeding bulls based entirely on what they look like rather than how profitable they will be to their clients.