While there are many factors affecting the eating pleasure of wholesome beef cuts, none may have as great an impact as tenderness. Unfortunately, few if any genetic selection tools have been available to systematically improve the tenderness of beef, thus improving eating satisfaction to consumers.
Sure, proper aging, live animal age, electrical stimulation and various other environmental stimuli help improve tenderness and the ultimate palatability of beef. But, common sense says the cornerstone for retaining and capturing a larger market share for beef products needs to revolve around identifying the genetics of tenderness, then figuring out how to improve that tenderness inherently.
Technology Meets The Future The American Simmental Association (ASA), in conjunction with funding from the National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA), has launched a carcass testing program. It combines the time-tested accuracies of Warner-Bratzler Shear Force (WBSF) testing and trained sensory panel evaluations to determine the tenderness and palatability differences in standardized cooked beef cuts.
For perspective, in this project the WBSF test measures the pounds of force required to cut through half-inch core samples of beef, prepared by using standardized and repeatable procedures at Kansas State University's meat lab. Basically, the more force it takes to cut through the meat, the less tender the meat and vice versa.
Although this type of data is not unique in and of itself, it serves as the foundation for subsequent research findings that transform this data into information that represents nothing short of space-age opportunity.
Specifically, geneticists at Cornell University, using genetic modeling, have determined that shear force values come with a fairly high genetic heritability. In other words, we can improve carcass tenderness by selecting for shear force measures and propagating sires that carry the genetics for lower shear force values.
This heritability estimate enabled Cornell researchers to devise the first set of EPDs (expected progeny differences) ever offered for shear force. More importantly, this step in genetic evaluation for tenderness opens the doors to new opportunities for improving meat tenderness and subsequent eating satisfaction through genetics.
As an example, the most important results of this extensive carcass study may come further down the road in the form of information gleaned from tissue and blood samples collected during the study. These samples are currently being tested for DNA markers that would allow us to specifically target more precise improvements in carcass tenderness, marbling and ribeye area (carcass yield).
Mapping A Steak What are these gene markers we've been hearing so much about? By identifying the gene loci - if and where these genes exist - it allows us to take a giant step ahead in learning whether genetics can help us to improve the quantitative traits that we want to improve genetically. In this case, quantitative traits include tenderness, muscle and marbling.
Bottom line, the carcass data set and subsequent analysis being compiled by ASA and Cornell can be used to identify the presence of gene markers in the sires and in the progeny of the sires represented in this test.
As interesting as all of this is, the answer most of us want to know is how this new technology may or may not impact our own operations. That in mind, we must first understand there are currently several gene-mapping businesses racing hard to become the industry's source for DNA-test and genetic improvement tools. If just one of these companies is successful, as technology advances and accuracy improves, cow/calf producers should be able to select from sires that have been DNA-verified to possess the specific genetic quantitative traits they are seeking to improve.
Consider this: Carcass traits are moderately to highly heritable, and evaluating genetics via actual carcass data takes at least two years from conception to harvest. That means DNA testing - a non-invasive, non-destructive technology - could significantly increase the rate of genetic advancement in the industry.
As with all cutting edge technology, the initial acquisition or entry cost will likely be expensive. However, as the technology improves and competition increases, the cost of these services should become more economical.
And, as exciting as this technology is, commercial and seedstock producers cannot afford to sacrifice other production traits in an all-out pursuit of tenderness. Mother Nature and the bovine species have an unyielding correction curve when selection pressure ignores the inherent antagonisms between the quantitative traits we strive to produce.
Knowing your market and designing progeny that meet production and palatability targets efficiently will provide business sustainability and increased market share for beef producers.
This said, however, this new technology holds tremendous potential to increase consumer demand for beef. Why? Because it should help us increase the consistency, palatability and eating satisfaction of our product.