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The Borlase Family use genetic profiling to produce consistently tender beef

A move to direct selling — and a shift in focus to producing tender beef from top quality carcases — is paying off for one Hertford-based business. The Borlase family took the plunge back in 2005, following an end to beef subsidies and the introduction of the Single Farm Payment, in order to increase the price they received for finished cattle from their 350-strong Sacombe pedigree Simmental herd.

"The prices we were seeing by selling cattle on a dead weight basis through the local abattoir were simply not high enough and we felt that direct selling was the only way to go if we were to remain profitable and be able to generate enough income to continue to invest in the herd and our business," says Bridget, who farms in partnership with her mother and father — Judy and Paul.

And they haven't looked back since. Bridget B's Traditional Meats are now selling direct to the UK's top three- and four-star restaurants and hotels, as well as through farmers' markets and the business's own farm shop.

And business is growing steadily — weekly turnover is four times what is was 12 months ago and there's room for more expansion. The family invested in an on-farm cutting room in 2007 and now employs one part-time and two full-time butchers. There are also plans to build a new, larger cutting room at the Watton on Stone-based unit.

Tenderness is what it's all about for Bridget, so eating quality is her top priority when producing beef. Already a fan of estimated breeding values (EBVs), which are helping her to breed cattle that will produce top grade carcasses, she went a step further four years ago when she began using Igenity genetic profiling to aid stock selection. She uses the data to aid decisions about keeping or selling breeding cattle from the Simmental herd.

"EBVs are great — I've got a lot of confidence in them. But they are, to a certain degree, open to interpretation. Igenity, on the other hand, provides solid data — you can't change the DNA of an animal. There's no room for subjectivity or error."

Feeding management and an animal's sex have a role to play in eating quality — that's why Bridget tends to shy away from steer and bull beef and prefers to slaughter and sell heifer beef as it's a more consistent product.

But she believes that genetics form the foundations as far as tenderness concerned: "I know that if I breed from an animal with a high genetic score for tenderness that, providing feeding and management are spot on, the end result will be top eating quality, highly saleable and valuable beef. And I'll keep my customers happy."

So far 75% of the Simmental herd have been DNA tested and genetic profiles have been produced using Igenity. "I want to identify individuals and cow families with high scores for the tenderness gene, as well as maternal and fertility traits."

The remainder of the Sacombe herd should be tested within the next year and Bridget says that the results will provide her with a complete set of data: "And I'll be able to see what genetic patterns run in each cow family and throughout the whole herd.

"Consistency is vital as far as tenderness and eating quality are concerned and Igenity is another tool that I can use to make sure we achieve it, by breeding from cattle with high scores for tenderness.

"And it's vital that we do — because we're dealing directly with our customers and they will tell us if our steaks are tough and not up to their usual standard."

Bridget works closely with her customers — it's the only way she can be sure to provide them with exactly what they want.

"I want some peace of mind and to know that, as far as breeding is concerned, I've done everything I can to ensure that our beef is tender," says Bridget. "And I believe that genetic profiling will allow me to have that peace of mind."

Former National Beef Association chairman Duff Burrell uses Igenity Profiling to gain a competitive edge

Former National Beef Association chairman Duff Burrell is one of an increasing number of UK beef producers seeking to gain a competitive edge through improved profitability and efficiency in today's market with the use of a new breeding tool — gene markers.

From a single tail switch hair sample a comprehensive DNA profile can define a beef animal's true potential for traits such as tenderness, carcass traits, coat colour and milking ability.

Gene markers are widely used in livestock producing countries, including the UK, Ireland, US, France, Australia and New Zealand. One of the leading gene marker services available to cattle breeders around the world is Igenity from Merial, with a large panel of gene markers that identify specific genetic traits in dairy and beef cattle.

Until now beef breeders have only been able to select for traits such as growth rates and leaner, more muscled carcasses through Estimated Breeding Values, now this new science enables producers to be able to breed specifically for the eating quality of the animal's carcass.

Duff Burrell has used Igenity gene marker profiles to test herd stock bulls and Embryo Transfer bulls and some females at Broome Park Farm, near Alnwick in Northumberland.

The young bulls were between eight and 10 months old and two achieved the maximum tenderness score of 10. Consumer taste tests have shown that as many as 21% more consumers consider the steak to be tender with such an increase in meat tenderness score1.

With his finger on the pulse of the UK beef industry, Mr Burrell shifted to added value Aberdeen Angus cows based on North American bloodlines eight years ago and now calves 190 cows.

"Farming has only ever progressed by using the science that's available. Gene markers are a way of measuring cattle at a time when we are trying to get them to make money for us," says Mr Burrell, who is unlikely to buy a future stock bull without it being tested for gene markers.

"Most recent costings data published by the English Beef and Lamb Executive (EBLEX) revealed the true cost of producing beef cattle on English farms - and that average beef producers are making a loss of between £74 and up to £425 per head."2

The 2005/2006 farm costings data contained in the latest edition of EBLEX Business Pointers did not include the Single Farm Payment, and also incorporate a number of non-cash costs, including family labour and rent.

In what he sees as a much more efficient system which will allow the home bred cattle to achieve more easily their full potential, the diet for young-stock from rearing to finishing is now a combination of grazing and a total mixed ration.

Mr Burrell looks closely at the cost effectiveness of the system and has his targets set. "My aim is to finish the steers at 500 days and achieve £1.50 for each of those days. The target carcass weight is 322kg and classified R4L to meet the supermarket specification and the new system has taken almost 160 days off the cattle's age at slaughter.

"Last year my steers averaged 526 days for the pure-breds and 533 days for the crossbreds and they averaged £1.40 a day but the finishing time has to be reduced to help achieve my target £1.50 a day."

In 2005, 93 steers were finished off the grazing-TMR system from September through to November. A further 56 heifers were sold either as bulling heifers or finished to a local butcher.

Igenity profiling was initially carried out at Broome Park were for tenderness but tests for milk and growth rates have subsequently been carried out.

"The Igenity profile, which includes tenderness, is of great interest as a lot of the problems at the consumer end lie in getting a reliable and edible piece of beef".

"Handling of cattle pre-slaughter through to the plate can make or break the tenderness of a piece of meat but there is no point in breeding tough beef. We have to stay in the high-priced, quality market if we're going to survive and if these tests can help us, all the little stitches will make a big sheet."

Mr Burrell believes that tender beef is something that all the supermarkets want but faster finishing cattle on lower input systems are equally important in today's de-coupled beef farming economy.

"Cattle have to be extensive and better finishing. They cost money every day they are on your farm so the sooner they are money in the bank the better. I fail to understand why you would keep an animal to 700 days if you can get it to 320kg carcase weight at 500 days," he said.

Mr Burrell says that genetic markers can be used in conjunction with EBVs to select particular traits in beef cattle.

And with beef farmers hard pressed to produce margins the test could be incorporated with genetic parentage testing required by pedigree beef societies to save money.

Merial is the main worldwide player in this area of gene markers, with its Igenity profile.

Igenity'S head in Europe, Nigel Otter, said: "Gene markers are set to become a main stream breeding tool in the UK for both pedigree and commercial producers. They are also being extensively evaluated and used in many countries".

"If producers identify the current profile of their herds, they can make mating decisions that will allow them to take advantage of opportunities presented by alliances with processors and supermarkets as premium grade pricing for tenderness becomes an economic reality."

Much of the work in the field of gene markers for beef cattle has been carried out in collaboration with independent research institutes in North America.

Now both pedigree and commercial beef producers can make informed selection and management decisions with the use of the new gene marker technology through Igenity.

Igenity enables breeders to:

  • Select sires that will make the fastest breeding progress in the herd
  • Test and select donor dams with the greatest potential.
  • Select replacement heifers of desired qualities and gain the advantage for their lifetime.
  • Test adult cows for breed improvement
  • Sort animals for more uniform and predictable finishing.

Tenderness scores can be assessed through Igenity, by identifying the profiles for enzymes calpain and calpastatin. These two enzymes influence muscle tenderness, which is measured by the force required to cut a beef steak.

The naturally occurring proteins calpain and calpastatin influence meat tenderness post-mortem by weakening muscle fibres and the test identifies variations in animals' calpain genotype.

Through selective breeding using the comprehensive Igenity profile, cattle can be finished that produce more tender cuts of beef — and taste tests have confirmed that more consumers prefer their beef to be tender.

"Meat tenderness excites the retailers and it is the number one priority for beef today. Supermarkets want to improve the quality of the eating experience because their research shows that consumers want more reliability and consistency. In this way gene markers for beef will have influence throughout the food chain, particularly amid competition from tender meats such as chicken," said Mr Otter.

"For breeders it's going to be an important marketing tool — for both pedigree and commercial producers. Once consumers start paying a premium for tenderness, producers who have been breeding and selecting for it will be in a stronger position to take advantage of the opportunity," he added.

1 Platter et al J. Anim. Sci. 2005. 83:890-899
2 www.stackyard.com/news/2006/11/meat/07_eblex_production.html

North Yorkshire pedigree cattle breeder Edward Penty

North Yorkshire pedigree cattle breeder Edward Penty has been interested in genetics since he was 17 and first saw beef production in the United States.

Now 34 he is recognising the importance of gene markers in both the family's established pedigree Limousin herd as well as a new Aberdeen Angus herd.

"We're breeding our bulls primarily for commercial producers and the Igenity tenderness test has got to be helpful for those breeding for processors and supermarkets who are now paying a bonus for tender carcasses," said Mr. Penty who farms a predominantly arable acreage with his parents John and Jenny and wife Catriona at Oak Tree Farm, Burneston, near Bedale.

"The premiums offered by such companies will undoubtedly encourage producers of breeding bulls to select characteristics that will enhance these bonuses. They are even more important these days when there are no subsidies.

"For little extra cost - £30 an animal — we can extract more value out of our cattle by selecting the ability to breed tender meat producing cattle."

Among the first batch of bulls produced by the Aberdeen Angus herd is Catrionas Ellisand, bred from a flushing of one of four cows the Pentys own in Indiana.

Ellisand, which has had semen taken for AI, scored top marks for the gene tenderness test. Consumer taste tests have shown that as many as 21% more consumers consider the steak to be tender with such an increase in the meat tenderness score.1

He weighed 715kg at 13 months old and at 16 months old his rib eye muscle depth was 115 mm compared with a breed average of 55-70mm and an exceptional depth of 80-85mm, indicating his superb lean fleshing ability.

"What gene markers are doing for the beef industry is just what we were doing 10 years ago with our potato production for Walkers crisps � helping us to maximise margins by producing what the processor wants, with no down side to it," said Edward Penty.

1 Platter et al J. Anim. Sci. 2005. 83:890-899

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