Better beef: The 3 factors that influence meat quantity and quality

22 March 2022
4 minutes

Cattle performance and meat quality are influenced by intrinsic and extrinsic factors. While extrinsic variables are uncontrollable, focusing on nutrition, management, and genetics is crucial. Nutritional strategies impact fat metabolism and marbling, while foetal programming influences meat quality early on. Genetic factors, including breed and gender, determine carcass quality and fat deposition. Optimizing these factors enhances meat quantity and quality, allowing farmers to meet consumer preferences and improve their farming operations' success.

  1. Nutritional factors
  2. Foetal programming as management strategy
  3. Genetic factors: Breed and sex

Well-performing cattle are essential to your farming operation’s success, but several ‘farm-level’ factors can potentially influence your herd’s performance – and your resulting carcass and meat quality. We can divide these into intrinsic and extrinsic factors.

As a farmer, you have little control over extrinsic variables – like pre-slaughter and post-slaughter conditions – even though they can affect your meat quality. So it makes sense to focus on the intrinsic factors you can control – like nutrition, management and genetics. Here, we look at each of these different factors in turn, and how you can influence them to improve the quantity and quality of your meat.

1. Nutritional factors

Various nutritional factors can influence carcass and meat quality. These include fat metabolism, starch availability, concentrate-to-roughage ratios, dietary energy, protein intake and vitamin levels.

When it comes to fat deposition (subcutaneous and intramuscular), one of the most important actions you can take is to ensure your herd consumes sufficient net energy. For example, you can raise the net energy supply by feeding your cattle cereal grains, to stimulate the production of volatile fatty acids in the rumen and gluconeogenesis in the liver. Supplementing fat can be another effective strategy to increase the energy density of your herd’s diet. This simple step helps to modify the fatty acid profile of meat.

2. Foetal programming as a management strategy

It’s never too early to begin improving meat quality and quantity. Picking the right nutritional strategy can influence the maternal uterine environment in gestating cows, ensuring healthy foetal growth and supporting the positive future development of your youngstock.

Early supplementation can also pay dividends during the period directly after birth, and effective nutritional management can enhance marbling in beef cattle up to 250 days after calving. This is due to the presence of multipotent cells in muscle.

As animals mature, these cells begin to deplete, making nutritional supplementation less effective. That being said, the size of existing intramuscular adipocytes may still be increasing, which is the major reason for the enhancement in marbling during fattening.

Figure1: Density of multipotent cells and adipogenic potency of bovine muscle during foetal programming, and from the birth of offspring to their slaughter (Du et al., 2010).

3. Genetic factors: breed and sex

Different breeds of beef cattle require different production systems. The precise combination of breed and system is what gives beef its specific attributes, allowing consumers to choose the colour, fat content and age of their meat, or select varieties such as grass-fed or antibiotic-free beef. However, the breed is ultimately what determines your ability as a farmer to improve carcass quality and fat quantity (covering or marbling).

Last but not least, gender (male, female, castrated) is an important determinant of the amount of fat deposited, as well as the deposition site, growth rate and carcass yield.

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