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6th June 2003

Future Pedigree Breeding of Cattle

QMS meeting Monday 26th May 2003

James Irvine

Teviot Agriculture, Cultybraggan Farm, Comrie, Perthshire
Teviot Scientific Consultancy, Edinburgh

(Filed 6 June 2003)
© www.land-care.org.uk


The comments made here are entirely personal and are not to be regarded as the views, official or otherwise, of QMS.

Quality Meat Scotland (QMS) held a meeting of invited participants at its headquarters at Ingliston, Edinburgh next to the Royal Highland Show ground. The invited participants mainly consisted of representatives of the breed societies with representation also from MLC and auctioneers. We were informed that the meeting was primarily for pedigree breeders, so few breeders of commercial suckler herds were present.

I had personally hoped that the meeting would have been instrumental in expediting the adoption of the Australian-based BREEDPLAN (1, Click here to view) as in my view Scotland, along with the rest of the UK, has sadly fallen behind in the study and the application of the genetics of cattle in terms of what should be available to the consumer - the person who buys meat to eat - in terms of a range of eating qualities and consistency of specification within each of these ranges.

Brian Sundstrom gave an excellent talk in Edinburgh in August last year about the ability of BREEDPLAN to be adapted to the requirements of different consumer markets, particularly with reference to the amount of marbling in the meat. The UK system (EBV's - Estimated Beef Values) as devised by the MLC and operated by Signet never has had any feature incorporated into it which had much to do with eating quality apart from leanness.

Click here to enlarge image

Figure 1

Teviot Sadie is the pedigree limousin heifer in the foreground, home-bred at Cultybraggan Farm. Who should her mate be in order to produce what kind of calf?
In the background is Lodge Ozzie who came to Cultybraggan as a calf-at-foot prior to the herd becoming closed.

It is disappointing that apparently QMS has still not got to grips with trying to fundamentally improve the eating quality of Scottish beef in terms of paying attention to the genetics involved. My perception is that, under the continued domination of MLC influence, QMS relies far too much on other factors to improve eating quality. These other factors are important, but so are the genetics of the beast that produces the beef.

With the pedestrian approach of MLC, a sample of the public was asked what aspects of eating quality did they value most. Top of the list was not surprisingly tenderness - who wants to eat tough meat? Taste apparently (and again hardly surprisingly) came a close second. So the MLC concentrated on tenderness and devised ways whereby the cattle and the meat from them were processed to produce tender meat. Taking one step at a time, they did little about taste.

What happened? The public got meat that was more tender than previously, but tasteless.

Furthermore, a common complaint among the British meat eating public is that there is lack of consistency in what is available - you might get lucky with a good piece of meat, but next time you are disappointed. The MLC would blame that on the cook, but since it is often the same cook who is finding these disappointing differences their excuse is hardly convincing.

As I recall it was concern about the lack of attention to eating quality that contributed to the demise of the old SQBLA organisation and its replacement with QMS all these years ago. Moreover, the public have largely forgotten what good meat really tastes like, having been persistently indoctrinated by what supermarkets have made available - red, lean and not very appetising. The industry needs to re-educate people as to what really good meat tastes like and what to demand. The branding of meat has now largely become according to the name of the supermarket instead of the name of the breed. But then, with MLC's somewhat extraordinary way of determining what tastes good and what does not, the MLC have contributed to downgrading the branding according to breed.

Sadly, the MLC takes the entrenched view that "one cannot buck the market" and "one has to give the public what it wants". That is a bit rich in view of the fact that in my view the MLC have been at least partly responsible (along with the supermarkets) for destroying what was previously perceived as quality. Indeed, by their own admission the MLC and SQBLA-that-was were concentrating on the commodity market, and the MLC continues to do so.

It has been obvious for sometime that, for Scotland's beef industry to survive, it must concentrate on quality rather than commodity. The commodity market will be flooded with cheaper imports from within Continental Europe and further afield. Scotland is presently only some 60% self-sufficient in meat production. Those involved in retailing the quality end of the market say that the main problem is that they cannot get enough of it, reliably enough. There is no question of over-production of quality meat.

QMS states on its website (2) that it has two main aims

1. To improve the competitive position of the Scottish meat and livestock industry at home and abroad, thereby bringing tangible benefit to the sectors involved, from primary production to point of sale.

2. To provide co-ordination and leadership for the whole of the industry.

What QMS has at last achieved is that the MLC levy that all Scottish producers pay to the MLC now comes to Scotland and QMS will determine how that levy is used in Scotland. MLC, and Signet that is associated with it, then become clients of QMS. Hopefully that will force MLC and Signet to be a good deal more open with those who pay the levy, now represented in Scotland by QMS.

Click here to enlarge image

Figure 2

Aberdeen Angus and Limousin Cross heifers, home-bred at Cultybraggan, that are due to calf soon.
What kind of calves should they be producing?
Is the muscle marbling being retained in these crosses and to what extent?


What should QMS be doing to promote the production of quality beef in Scotland?

An integrated approach should be along the following lines:

1. Decide what end-markets are to be targeted, recognising that there should be several.
For example those following the now highly popular Dr Atkins weight-reducing diet have no concerns about how much fat they eat, nor how much beef (preferably cooked in butter) (3, 4). Others who wish to follow a low-fat, low-calorie diet will continue to want to buy lean meat.

2. Consider the genetic markers for breeding pedigree cattle to achieve these end goals. For example the genetic markers for marbling in beef are strong.

3. Apply the technology that is now well advanced in other countries to grade for marbling in the living animal. At the same time apply the technologies currently available for conformation, growth etc that are all currently useful within their limitations. By so doing it should be possible to get a much better idea of whether or not by trying to improve confirmation in a breed such as Aberdeen Angus, marbling may be lost. There is not much point in trying to convert an Aberdeen Angus beast into a limousin in terms of conformation if an essential character of the breed is lost by so doing. Scanning a calf for marbling in its muscle is a relevant thing to do as the manifestation of the marbling gene is apparent from an early age. Thus it should be possible for suckler calf producers to orientate the breeding within their commercial herds so as to significantly contribute to the improvement of the end product - quality meat on the consumer's plate.

4. Facilitate the study of the most appropriate feeding programmes for stock aimed for beef production.

5. Facilitate action over the urgent need to improve the health of Scottish livestock in relation to Johnes, TB, BVD, IBR etc

6. Pay attention to all the other factors that affect meat eating quality - such a stress prior to slaughter, how the meat is treated after slaughter etc.


The purpose of this article is to concentrate on facilitating genetic improvement of cattle with the meat consumer in mind, with particular reference to how meat tastes

The Austrialian-based BREEDPLAN is of course not the only breeding programme geared to the taste of the meat-eating consumer. In the States the EPD (Expected Progeny Difference) (5) system is used and is highly regarded.

What can be achieved with that system has been described on Land-Care by Robert Groom (6, click here to view). In 1998 I bought a substantial part of his Tullyfergus pedigree Aberdeen Angus herd plus a good number of his commercial Aberdeen Angus crosses. He was selling up in order to emigrate to the States where the intellectual climate was much more conducive to applying cattle genetics with the meat-eating consumer in mind. The contrast as to what he has managed to achieve in the past five years while in the States, in comparison with the essential stagnant lack of progress in the UK, is striking (6, click here to view).

In my view there is a rigidity of mind-set in the UK that is geared towards the commodity market - "more is best". The dogma is followed that taste can can be achieved by how the meat is processed without reference to its basic structure - such as marbling. How the MLC sets about deciding who arbitrates which meat tastes good and which does not is also open to question. The persistent denial my MLC that marbling is an important factor in meat quality flies in the face of the experience in much of the rest of the world - notably Australia and the States.

It was frankly depressing to listen to the majority of pedigree breed societies coming up with all sorts of reasons not to change. These ranged from an obvious vested interest in the current system in terms of good financial returns continuing in the short term. Most pedigree breed societies view eating quality of meat a long way off from their situation - which is to get the highest prices for bulls in the pedigree sales, and to keep the expensive pedigree registrations rolling in.

Other arguments centred on losing British science to other countries and the £5 million that the UK Government currently puts into it. The reality is, however, that UK science through the MLC has not delivered and has now fallen seriously behind. Others thought that our MLC scientists could tweek the current EBV system to take account of what others have done, but there can be little credibility over their ability to do this timeously, in view of the fact that they appear to need a radical change in mind-set in the first place before they even get started.

What appears to have happened is that an excellent idea whereby the Aberdeen Angus Cattle Society could have signed up with BREEDPLAN and got on with the project has been scuppered by MLC and Signet muscling in trying to establish themselves as unnecessary middlemen, and adding to the cost that the breeder would be required to pay and multiplying the bureaucracy.

Sadly there is no one in Scotland who has the training and the equipment to do scanning for marbling in muscle - largely thanks to the inhibitory powers of MLC and Signet. If only that relatively simple bit of equipment and training were to be given some initial financial backing, together with a committed group of pedigree and commercial breeders, we could simply go ahead without either MLC or Signet or indeed anyone else. After all, individuals can subscribe to BREEDPLAN and build up their own herd records and compare them to the vast body of evidence now accumulated by BREEDPLAN as to how others around the world are doing.

My impression from the QMS meeting with the pedigree breeders is that Scotland is going to take far too long to achieve what has long been overdue.

Oh where, oh where has the pioneering initiative of the Scots gone?

© www.land-care.org.uk



1. Sundstrom, Brian (2002). Breedplan - Australian Based International Beef Cattle Genetic Evolution Programme.
(Filed 2002, www.land-care.org.uk, click here to view).

2. Quality Meat Scotland. Main objectives

3. Atkins Website.

4. Atkins, Robert C. (2003). Dr Atkins' New Diet Revolution: The No-hunger, Luxurious Weight Loss Plan That Really Works!
View on Amazon

5. Hammack, Stephen P. and Paschal, Joe C. Expected Progeny Difference (EPD) in Beef Cattle. The Texas A&M University System. (Download PDF).

6. Groom, Robert (2003). Letter from America by Expatriate Scot AA Breeder.
(Filed 9 April 2003, www.land-care.org.uk, click here to view).