THE relevance of hump height as an assessment of Bos Indicus content in Meat Standards Australia grading operations came under challenge at yesterday’s International Brahman Congress held in Rockhampton.
There’s plenty of history in the relationship between the Bos Indicus end of the Australian cattle industry and the MSA grading program.
MSA caused an outcry among northern beef producers when the program was first launched in 1998 when it was announced that only cattle bearing less than 50pc bos Indicus would qualify for the MSA grading, in its initial phase.
MSA argued at the time that it was taking a conservative approach to achieving consistency in eating quality outcomes, with intentions to ‘expand outwards’ over time. MSA did ultimately ease its restrictions on Indicus content, in stages, until the limitation disappeared altogether.
However Indicus content (gauged using the proxy measurement of hump height) remains as a fixture on all cattle graded in the MSA pathways and index scoring.
A delegate at yesterday’s Brahman Congress technical forum raised the issue of hump height relevance in MSA grading with speaker, MSA operations manager Sarah Strachan.
She said in mobs of cattle where there was mixed levels of Indicus content, hump height had been shown to be a ‘relatively good indicator’ of Indicus content, and consequently the potential impact on eating quality.
“The hump height attribute is collected on every single carcase graded for MSA,” she said. “The bigger the hump, the bigger the (negative) impact will be on that MSA result.”
She stressed, however, that hump height was quite interactive with carcase weight and condition, and carcase weight was taken into account in assessing MSA hump score.
Another delegate said that given the evidence now emerging through the Brahman Beef Improvement Nucleus (BIN) project demonstrating genetic variation in marbling and other meat quality performance in Brahman cattle, were changes likely to the MSA grading system to account for this.
“All of us in this room object to the concept of hump height being a part of the MSA grading system,” he claimed. “How is MSA going to move forward in this area, and cut down on the discrimination based around hump height?”
His call attracted support from some conference delegates in the room, in the form of applause.
“Changes cannot be made to the MSA model until they have been validated through the MSA consumer sensory testing protocol,” Ms Strachan said.
“If in fact there is a need for a change, that then goes through to the MSA R&D pathways committee, which makes a recommendation to the MSA task force committee, seeking a change to the model,” she explained.
“At this stage, however, the hump height calculation is not changing.”
Nick Corbet from CQ University’s Precision Livestock Management team said from all the data collected from 844 high Bos Indicus content steers from the ABBA benchmarking project assessed for quality traits, there was no real relationship at all between hump height and sheer force (a mechanical measurement of resistence/tenderness, using a Warner Braztler machine).
“I agree with you, Mr Corbet said. “I reckon there is enough data there to take it to MSA to at least have a look at, to see if it should be incorporated into their thinking.”
Progeny testing showed about 40pc difference between Brahman sires for shear-force (tenderness) testing in progeny lines, and earlier CRC work showed this trait was something like 40pc heritable – particularly in Bos Indicus genotypes, where calpain (good) and calpastatin (tougher) muscle fibres were an issue.
Equally, intra-muscular fat (IMF) also produced considerable sire differences between tested Brahman sire lines, and is regarded as about 40pc heritable. It also aligned ‘quite nicely’ with subjective marbling scores carried out by MSA graders and AusMeat chiller assessors, the audience was told.
“From all the consumer testing, IMF percent and marbling have a big influence on eating quality in terms of acceptability. We certainly can select for these traits within the Brahman breed. If you want to introduce marbling, you don’t have to go out and buy a jersey bull,” producers were told.
Is geographic/nutrition factor being confused with genetics?
Potential for confusing genetics with environmental impacts in terms of eating quality performance also came up during discussion.
ABBA technical committee chairman Brett Coombe said having been involved in the sire benchmarking project from the word go, it was important to understand that ‘Brahman cattle are located in northern Australia.’
“It was obvious from what was described to this conference earlier about optimising MSA pathways in northern Australia that our growth paths are some of the hardest around. The further south you get, those cattle will produce average daily gains of 0.8 to 0.9kg/day on pasture. In Northern Australia, we often struggle to get 0.5 or better.”
“That is one of the problems. Within the MSA model that’s what happened: the more difficult the growth path due to the environment, the higher the degree of tropical adaptation in use of bos Indicus content.”
Mr Coombe suggested that the only way the Brahman industry was going to get the MSA model changed was to clearly identify (and select from) those Brahman sires that had better eating quality traits.
“Five or six years ago, the GeneStar tenderness test came out, and we thought we may be able to incorporate that into the MSA pathways model. Down the track, perhaps we will still be able to use a genomic test like that, but it still comes back to the ability to identify those good performers for meat quality, that can produce a better quality, more consistent eating product.”
As part of the MSA long-term ‘vision’, there is a view that DNA gene markers for attributes like tenderness could be incorporated into the pathways model.
Negative correlation on hump-height
Mr Coombe said at the last Brahman benchmarking project field day, the comment was made that hump height on the 800-odd project steer progeny was in fact negatively correlated with eating quality.
“The ones with the biggest humps ate better, based on MSA index score,” he said.
“As a Brahman breeder myself, I’m hearing you; I know what you’re saying,” Mr Coombe told the audience.
“But we have to identify, and use those better performing animals – and then we can talk with MSA about changes. But as I said, a big challenge we face is that our (Brahman) cattle do not have access to the growth path opportunity that cattle do in more southern parts of Australia.”
Cloncurry Brahman cattleman and former ABBA president Roger Jefferis (pictured above) said since the Brahman breed was originally banned from MSA all those years ago, the breed had done a lot of research to ‘find a lot out’ about eating performance.
“The key point here is that in our recent trials and restaurant trials, the faster growing cattle and the cattle with access with better nutrition totally usurped any influence from hump height. We need to be making that clearer to people like MSA.”
“I see here in black and white that MSA still suggests that hump height has a big effect on tenderness. But until bos Indicus breeders realise that there’s other ways in there, they are still going to lose of lot of them (non-compliance) to MSA,” Mr Jefferis said.
Ms Strachan said there was no doubt that faster growing cattle produced less connective tissue, and improved tenderness outcomes.
“There are still lots of opportunities for Brahman cattle to grade for MSA,” she said. “But its important to remember that the consumer is key inside the MSA model – it’s the empty chair around the decision-making table.”
“If there is support and evidence, we will need to re-validate the hump-height issue, we’ll have to do that through the consumer sensory protocol – it’s the only way that any change to the MSA Model gets adopted.”
Another congress delegate said the hump height issue could also be confused with body condition.
“The cattle in better condition, which may be the best for eating quality, also tend to have the biggest hump,” he said.
Mr Coombe confirmed that the benchmark trial animals with the bigger hump tended to be the better finished animals. “That’s why it was a negative correlation with toughness (MSA score),” he said.
“If you’ve got enough fat cover, and a big hump, it shouldn’t matter. That’s one of the things the BIN project is looking to try to illustrate.”
He said of the 800-plus Brahman steers in the trial, put on the same environment, 97 percent graded in MSA boning group 12 or less, and 37pc in boning group 8 or less.
“Our cattle can do it, but we just need to keep chugging away at it,” Mr Coombe said.
Hotel steakhouse produces ‘surprise’ taste-test winner
An example of the consistent eating quality performance that can be achieved with Brahman cattle was flagged during a Congress industry business breakfast hosted earlier in the day yesterday by Elders and Elanco.
Participants were shown results from a recent (December) promotion at Brisbane’s 800-seat Norman Hotel steakhouse, where Brahman beef produced out of JBS Australia’s Townsville plant was judged the best, in a four-way breed consumer trial.
Thousands of patrons during the busy pre-Christmas December period rated their steaks (four different breeds, all MSA-graded YG, including Angus, Hereford, Charolais and Brahman) on standard MSA criteria including flavour juiciness, tenderness and overall liking.
The ultimate winner? Brahman.
The historic and ever-popular Norman Hotel is Brisbane’s second largest hotel steakhouse, exceeded in size only by the 1000-seat Breakfast Creek.
Are MSA premiums worth chasing with high Indicus content cattle?
Some Q&A discussion during yesterday’s Congress also centred on premiums paid for MSA cattle by brand owners, and whether they were in fact worth pursuing in northern areas where higher indicus content was required for tropical adaptation.
MLA managing director Richard Norton told the conference that across Australia, across 3.2 million cattle graded for MSA last year, the price difference between MSA and non-MSA cattle was $91 a head, worth about $240 million to the industry.
One conference delegate claimed MSA premiums in northern Australia for long periods each year were ‘lucky to be 10c/kg,’ meaning they were ‘not worth chasing.’
“If you take that claimed $91 advantage for MSA cattle, if you put that over a typical grassfed heavy carcase, its about a 23c/kg premium for MSA. On average, we’re lucky to get 10c. The figures just don’t stack up,” he said.
Brett Coombe offered a counter view, saying in his experience, targeting PCAS and MSA, he found that premiums of that size ‘were out there.’
“As northern producers, if you want to aim for that premium product, there are big amounts of money to be made. It’s just a matter of where you want to aim in your production system,” he said.
ABBA general manager John Croaker said premiums would always change, but in the case of the BIN project Brahman steers killed this year, the large lines of MSA boning group 6-8 steers had attracted a 45c/kg premium.