A focus on cattle breed and nutrition, backed by new technology is helping farmers and ANZCO achieve new heights in assessing marbling in beef.
“Marbling can be a sought-after quality in meat because it gives it flavour and locks in moisture,” says ANZCO’s general manager agriculture and livestock Grant Bunting.
Evolving international grass-fed beef markets that have historically been a product of grain finished or feedlot cattle can have an expectation for marbling which is somewhat challenging in pasture-based systems where climate and feed sources don’t necessarily allow for intensive finishing.
“Last year was our first commercial year in attempting to offer a marbling attribute to our grass-fed natural beef programme and we achieved a 50 percent hit rate with marbling,” says ANZCO beef programme manager Coralie de La Fage.
“Genetics and body condition are critical factors for a well-marbled animal. Weight is a good indication for finishing but doesn’t always translate to high marbling carcases. Marbling is the visible intramuscular fat (IMF). IMF is the last fat that is laid down and the first fat to go if the animals are under stress because of a range of factors including weather, feed deficiency and handling,” she says.
“This season ANZCO introduced a scanner that was originally developed in the US for medical purposes. It has been adapted for cattle allowing us to assess IMF in live animals. Thanks to the rise in digital technology the scanner offers a more comprehensive series of images than the older analogue system.”
The use of the scanner, backed by a US Department of Agriculture accredited laboratory, has enabled improved animal selection and provided producers with the ability to focus on finishing higher potential cattle. The resulting marbling hit rate has increased from 50 percent to more than 76 percent for the recent season.
“We’re scanning two weeks before slaughter to reduce potential for pH problems associated with any stress that may occur during scanning. It takes about two weeks for muscle glycogen levels to be replenished following any significant stress event,” explains de La Fage.
“There is a high correlation between the scan and slaughter assessments. We are seeking a carcase marbling score of 2+. Clipping animals at the scan area eliminates one of the biggest distortion factors, to give the best possible scan results. Five images are then taken to give the most consistent results. Scores from the scans are available in 24 to 48 hours,” she says.
“We can also use the scanning as a drafting tool – suggesting to farmers they hold on to any cattle that are close to achieving the required marbling score but not there yet.
“We’ve been doing this for two years now and the technology on offer suggests a greater confidence now exists around decision-making that has not been the case with scanning options available in New Zealand to date.
“We have a known supplier base and work very closely with ANZCO’s livestock reps and farmers on stock selection and ensuring that cattle are slaughtered at their optimal marbling stage,” de La Fage says.
Heifers tend to perform better because they tend to be fattier.
“The farmers involved are enjoying learning from the scanning and are finding it motivating. It’s giving them a lot of insights as to which animal source is better for marbling traits.”