Both national and international research looking at bulls versus steers would all concur that when managed similarly in terms of diet and slaughtered at the same age, bulls will have a:
Better feed conversion efficiency (10% to 15%).
From 2010 through to 2015, there was extensive research carried out in Teagasc Grange on suckler-bred bull-beef systems.
One such study compared bulls and steers. These animals were purchased as weanlings in autumn and half were castrated prior to the start of the study.
From here, half of the bulls and half of the steers went on ad-lib concentrates through to slaughter, while the other half were stored for the winter period, turned out to grass for 100 days and then rehoused for an indoor ad-lib concentrate finishing period of 75 days.
Carcase weights from the ad-lib meal groups averaged 382kg for steers and 420kg for bulls (10% greater), while the animals that had a period at pasture prior to finishing averaged 363kg for steers and 406kg for bulls (11% greater).
All treatments achieved a minimum carcase fat score of 2+, with steers typically grading one point higher than bulls for fatness and one point lower than bulls for conformation.
Meat quality work carried out by trained taste panel experts on these animals post-slaughter showed that steers tended to score slightly better for tenderness, texture and overall acceptability, but there was no difference in flavour between gender types.
The conclusions of the study suggested that overall differences were small and were unlikely to be detected by untrained consumers.
This year, there has been a dramatic drop in the number of male suckler-bred cattle slaughtered as young bulls, as processor pressure on the system in recent years has moved farmers back to steer production.
Beef quotes for steers were between €4.05/kg and €4.10/kg this week. However, if these animals were reared as bulls, they would have a 10% to 15% heavier carcase and an improved conformation score.
Therefore, in order to compensate farmers for the reduced performance of steers over bulls, a beef price in excess of €4.45/kg would be required.
The meat-eating quality trial showed minimal differences at consumer level between steers and bulls, which contradicts the meat quality argument for retailer preference for steer beef.
It then comes down to consumer preference. As consumers become more aware of the carbon footprint of the meat they are eating, would they be willing to switch to bull beef if it was more carbon efficient?
More research is needed in this area to look at the possible carbon efficiencies bull-beef systems can offer.
The ICBF has shown that the greatest way to reduce the carbon footprint of the beef herd is to reduce the age at slaughter. Bulls offer this possibility.
Yes, these animals do consume more concentrate than the typical steer system.
However, there is a need for more research on the role high-quality grass silage can play in terms of providing a sufficient level of protein in the diet, while there is a clear symbiotic relationship that could be harnessed in terms of the use of native grain in finishing diets.