A checkoff-funded study on beef tenderness provided some carcass insights between steers and heifers. Authored by Colorado State University's Darryl Tatum, the study showed that, despite heifers tending to have higher quality grades than steers, they're consistently tougher, have a much higher percentage of undesirable eating experiences due to tenderness, and produce a significantly higher number of dark cutters.
The report recommends longer aging periods for heifers (21 days), and more caution in their handling in order to reduce pre-harvest stress.
Hormonal effects are also believed to be a contributing factor to the heifer tenderness issue. Spaying of heifers and MGA feeding (MGA should not be removed from heifers more than 24 hours pre-harvest), and not using aggressive implant procedures were some of the tactics suggested to improve tenderness in heifers. Longer aging also tends to mitigate the effects of aggressive implant procedures on tenderness.
Increasingly, we're finding that selecting for disposition does much more than save labor and equipment; it also carries significant economic consequences. That's because more docile cattle feed better, and eat better, as well.
Genetics also play an important role in beef tenderness. The National Cattlemen's Beef Association's large, multi-breed carcass study of several years ago is paying big dividends in helping the industry identify tough/tender cattle. Still, tenderness hasn't been a major focus of the commercial industry for the basic reason that reliable means of measurement haven't been identified. Thus, there's been no economic incentive for including tenderness in our selection practices.
The old refrain, "I'll start doing it when they start paying for it," is understandable in some respects. But we know that eating quality plays a big role in beef demand and the likelihood of consumers to select beef. We also know tenderness is the No.-1 criteria, overshadowing juiciness and flavor in consumers' assessment of a quality eating experience.
The industry reaps large rewards for improving tenderness, even if price incentives for individuals based on tenderness aren't currently available. Past the ranch gate, the industry's focus right now seems to be on improving feed efficiency, health and tenderness, and rightly so.
While such studies illuminate management differences, a lot of cattlemen tend to manage their heifers differently than steers, and this likely aggravates the tenderness issue. Heifers that aren't going to be retained as replacements should be managed to ensure optimal nutrition prior to weaning and through the stocker phase in a manner similar to steers.