On-farm factors affecting red meat quality

Ensuring consistently high meat quality starts on the farm. Understanding the important factors here can help you to make improvements to your meat quality.  
Back to: Meat quality and shelf life

Breed and sex

When it comes to meat quality, breed and sex impact things like growth rates and carcase size, with differences seen between females, entire males and castrated males. When compared with other post-slaughter technologies, breed and sex can have very little influence on meat tenderness 

There can also be subtle differences between different sheep, as fat within muscles varies with sex. Ewe lambs and wether lambs tend to have more fat than ram lambs, at a given classification. There is no difference between sexes in terms of conformation. However, due to the hormones naturally present, ram lambs can develop a higher incidence of abnormal flavour known as ‘ram taint’ when finished beyond five months. 

Similarly, boar taint is estimated to be present in 1 in 10 male pigs. The incidence can vary depending on the breed and age at slaughter. An AHDB-funded study indicated that boars can be taken to around 110 kg at slaughter without developing boar taint in the pork. 

Find out more about boar taint

Diet and finishing

What an animal eats, as it is finished, can impact meat quality in several areas; 

  • Appearance 
  • Aroma 
  • Fat level 
  • Colour 

Matching the diet to an animal’s growth potential is important to optimise growth rates. For example, adding vitamin E to beef or lamb concentrate in finishing diets can extend shelf life and protect flavour.  

Diet may also play a role in flavour, particularly for monogastric animals, like pigs. UK consumers tend to prefer beef described as having a ‘stronger’ flavour which, is achieved by high-forage diets. Such diets can lead to a more yellow fat covering. Likewise, UK consumers prefer the stronger flavour of grass-fed lambs. Lamb flavour can be affected by feeding legumes (especially lucerne), brassicas, oats, maize silage, onions and soya or field beans.  

Selection

Assessing whether an animal is ready for slaughter or not requires visual assessment handling and weighing. 

The ability to handle an animal is an essential skill for any producer. Combined with regular weighing, it has the added benefit of enabling progress to be monitored, and any illness or problem to be identified.  

It is important to identify the correct handling points and ensure calm handling to avoid stress. When assessing beef, always handle the loin on the left-hand side due to the placement of kidney fat on the right side. 

Assessing a lambs’ level of condition is vital to determine the correct time to sell and maximise potential returns. Lambs should be sorted by handling once a fortnight, as they approach market quality, and every week for the final two or three weeks.  

Age and growth rate

Stock rearing to optimise meat production needs to take account of the different growth phases – rearing, growing and finishing. 

Energy intake is first directed to bone growth, then lean muscle (meat). Once bone and muscle are formed, the animal stores energy as fat. Excess fat requires up to six times the energy needed to deposit lean meat, which is detrimental to returns. Selecting stock for slaughter at the correct growth stage optimises production profit and lean meat yield. 

In general, meat from older cattle tends to be tougher. To avoid undesirable toughness developing its recommended that heifers and steers are finished under 30 months of age, while young bulls should be less than 15 months of age.  

In the same way, older lambs are generally tougher and, historically, research has shown a seasonal decline in tenderness. If necessary, the tenderness of meat from older animals can be enhanced after slaughter by electrical stimulation or hanging for extended periods. 

Fat level

Some fat is necessary for optimum quality and consistency of any cooked meat.  

While the eating quality of beef can be excellent at a very low level of fat, a minimum level of fat class 3 will ensure good eating quality. A consistent eating quality can be achieved without having a high percentage of visual marbling. Ultra-lean carcases can lead to poor eating quality. 

Perceived ‘fattiness’ is the main source of consumer criticism of pork and lamb. A demand for leaner pork has led to a lower average probe measurement of around 11 mm in GB. Lamb fat has a high melting point giving a ‘sticky’ feel in the mouth. It is, therefore, particularly important to avoid over-fat lamb. However, the extremely lean (fat class 1) should also be avoided.  

Useful links

Marketing prime lamb for Better Returns guide Marketing prime beef for Better Returns guide Find out more on marketing prime beef Further information on boar taint Learn more about feeding growing and finishing pigs

If you would like a hard copy of Marketing prime beef or Marketing prime lamb guides please contact publications@ahdb.org.uk or call 0247 799 0069.

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