Scientists Work To Enhance Marbling In Beef Cattle

US - Several university researchers are collaborating to find ways to increase marbling in beef cattle without adding extra days on high-concentrate diets.
calendar icon 1 November 2011
clock icon 3 minute read

“With high feed costs and the high cost of gain for cattle feeders, what if we could achieve the same degree of marbling with less days on feed?” said Texas Tech meat scientist, Brad Johnson. “We feel that that’s where the economic advantage is.”

Mr Johnson has been working on a five-year study, along with Ki Yong Chung, also of Texas Tech, Stephen Smith and Seong Ho Choi of Texas A&M University and Matthew Doumit of the University of Idaho to better understand regulation of marbling development by fatty acids in beef cattle.

Johnson began work on the project while at Kansas State University. He joined the Texas Tech faculty three years ago as the Gordon W. Davis Regent’s Chair in Meat and Muscle Biology. The findings of the team’s research to date were presented at the American Meat Science Association’s Reciprocal Meat Conference held in Manhattan earlier this year.

“We know marbling increases the palatability of beef, the juiciness and indirectly increases tenderness,” Mr Johnson said. “Cattle on grass tend to have lower marbling scores than corn-fed cattle. Grass is very high in a particular fatty acid – alpha Lenolenic acid, and we feel that a little of that moves through the rumen and could actually repress marbling development in beef cattle.”

On the other hand, in feedlot cattle, starch from corn and grain sorghum in the diet elevates levels of oleic acid, which is a monounsaturated fatty acid. The research team believes that fatty acid is important in stimulating marbling development in cattle, he said.

While there’s not always a big difference in the price spread between choice and select – two beef grades that indicate the amount of marbling (fat within the muscle) – over time there’s enough of a price difference to show that the amount of marbling does matter, he said.

“We’ve been able to take these cells out of tissue and grow them in a culture system and add specific fatty acids to see how that impacts differentiation of cells into marbling,” Mr Johnson said. “We’ve also looked at potential receptors that are imbedded in the cell’s surface, and have found that marbling at different sites – the cells that make up marbling – have a different profile of receptors than say, backfat at different sites. We felt that we can manipulate that difference to enhance marbling without making the cattle fatter.”

He cited work by Smith at Texas A&M, that’s shown that the older the animal, the less some of the receptors are available in backfat, which would imply that marbling should come a little easier with age.

“With the cost of gain the way it is, feed efficiency is so critical to feedlot operators. We feel that if we can enhance marbling with fewer days on feed or less expensive feed ingredients, that would be a win-win situation,” the researcher said.

“The bottom line is that triggering these cells probably at a very early age to become marbling at different sites, and let them lay idle for awhile, once we bring them into the feedlot, they should really enhance marbling,” Mr Johnson said. “That’s the ultimate goal that we’re trying to achieve.”

The study was funded by the Kansas Beef Council through Beef Checkoff funds.

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