A recent study, which took place at Teagasc’s beef research centre in Grange, was undertaken with purchased-in, late-maturing, spring-born weanlings.
They spent the first winter period on ad-lib grass silage and 2kg meal/day.
In spring, they then went on to one of four treatments as follows:
All cattle were slaughtered at an average age of 19.3 months.
Carcase weights for the four treatments were (1) 399kg; (2) 381kg; (3) 374kg; and (4) 361kg.
Corresponding fat scores recorded for each group were (1) averaged between a 3- and 3=; (2) averaged 2=; (3) averaged between a 2= and a 2+; while (4) came in just below an average score of 2=.
The study then carried out meat-eating quality tests on the various groups using trained taste panel assessors.
The results showed that there was no difference in tenderness, flavour or acceptability between striploin steaks from any of the treatment groups.
The study did find that meat from bulls finished at pasture tended to be a darker colour, but differences were small.
It was concluded that although none of the grazing groups achieved what is currently accepted as the minimum specification for carcase fatness at a fat score of 2+, this had no effect on the quality of meat produced, implying that carcase fat score is a poor indicator of the eating quality of bulls.
While farmers are moving away from bull-beef production systems on the basis of processor preference for steer beef, the question should be asked as to why this preference is there.
This study shows that farmers can produce a substantial carcase weight at a young slaughter age from a grass-based system.
Surely this ticks many boxes in terms of producing beef with a lower carbon footprint.
International research has shown, time and again, that bull-beef systems are anywhere from 12% to 20% more efficient than steer-beef production systems.
There is no other industry in the world that would walk away from such efficiencies without being suitably compensated for doing so.
This study shows that there was no link between carcase fat score and meat-eating quality.
We must then question why the factory price is so heavily dependent on carcase fat score. Is there a way to reward farmers for producing meat with a higher eating quality?
Processors and retailers will say that consumers will only pick up a steak that looks visually appealing and this includes a sufficient layer of fat across the top of the steak.
While the pasture-finished treatments failed to hit carcase fat score specifications, minor tweaks to the system or to the genetics could go a long way in hitting these targets, if they are required to meet the visual demands of consumers.