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Pay attention to marbling

For most cow/calf producers there isn’t much (if anything)
they can do to improve the carcass quality of an animal once it leaves farm –
that is pretty well in hands of the finishing feedlot. But, if you do finish
cattle for your own use or maybe you are getting into direct meat sales, here
is some information on marbling that may be useful in feeding management.

 Long-time Alberta Agriculture beef specialist Russ Horvey
(now retired) and a beef producer himself (Big Deal Galloway) talked to

participants at a recent Canadian Beef School at Olds College about the dos and
don’ts affecting marbling.

Marbling is intramuscular fat (within the muscle), while
back fat is subcutaneous fat (outside the muscle). Marbling has much more impact
on meat quality and taste than backfat, and there is very little relation
between the amount of backfat and the amount of marbling. It is the
intramuscular fat that gives meat its flavor. It was interesting to note that a
AAA carcass is probably the best from a meat quality standpoint, although
sometimes well-marbled meat is hard to sell because consumers are afraid of the
fat. Go figure.

First, 90 percent of marbling is determined by genetics
rather than feeding or other factors. That doesn’t mean that a poor feeding
program won’t have a negative impact on marbling. But if you have an animal
without the genetics for marbling little can be done to increase marbling. If
you have an animal with marbling genetics, then management can increase

Not to get into a discussion about which is the best breed
out there, but generally British breed cattle have more potential for marbling.
Bos Indicus breed cattle, which are more common in warmer production zones
(cattle with humps and long floppy ears) are generally regarded to produce
lower quality meat – meat that is less tender.

You can’t talk this fact up much around Agribition, but one
to the top breeds for meat quality and flavor –good marbling –  is Holstein.

Even though your cattle have genetic potential for marbling
it takes 100 days of feeding to increase a marbling score by one point. So you
can’t step up the ration in the last two or three weeks, or month before
slaughter and expect to improve marbling.

Ultrasound and EPDs are the best measure of marbling
potential. DNA evaluation is less reliable.

If you are trying to optimize marbling, don’t put the calf
through any period of feed stress. Sometimes in backgrounding, or for other

economic reasons feed is restricted so a calf might gain only .5 pounds per
day. That isn’t normal, that is stressful and will affect marbling. Through out
its life the calf should be able to gain a minimum of three-quarters of a pound
or ideally one to two pounds per day to maximize marbling potential.

Calves that are on a good creep feed marble more.

When it comes to growth promotants, to maximize marbling,
don’t implant calves at weaning or as they enter the feedlot. Calves that are
to be implanted need to be properly immunized, and should be on creep feed.
Since entering the feedlot is a stressful period, calves should not be
implanted at the feedlot until they have been on feed for 14 to 28 days.

From a temperament standpoint, quiet, docile cattle marble
better, than those that are aggressive or ‘high headed’.  And a study at North Dakota State
University showed that calves raised in a lot with good bedding have improved
marbling over those with little or no bedding.










About the author

Field Editor

Lee Hart

Lee Hart is editor of Cattleman’s Corner based in Calgary.



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