Well fattened animals are more tender for a variety of reasons

by Allan Nation

Throughout history, humans have sought out fat animals in preference to lean ones. While lean meat has (or had in these days of the Atkins Diet) a great many people who intellectually agree with the idea of eating lean meat, that's not the way they have ever voted with their pocketbooks.

A major problem with much of the grassfed meat being sold in America today is that it is not properly fattened (finished). This is primarily a problem of the maturity (size) at which the animals are being harvested.

While it is possible to get young animals to put on exterior fat it is impossible to get them to marble significantly, and marble fat is the key to a quality eating experience. Exterior and seam fat have very little impact upon eating quality and are trimmed off and discarded by many - perhaps most - North American consumers.

WHAT MARBLING DOES

The tiny fleck of fats in a marbled meat insure that the consumer gets some fat with each mouthful. This has three major benefits:

(1.) The marbling fat contributes the majority of the beef flavor. Protein is tasteless. Only fat has flavor.

(2.) The marbling fat ensures that the meat stays moist and lubricated during cooking.

(3.) The marbling fat stimulates the salivary gland to keep producing saliva during chewing and so helps promote the moist juiciness sensation.

(4.) The healthful CLA that is attracting many consumers is located in the fat and not the protein portion of the meat. However, here is the paradox of marbling.

It does not typically occur until the animal is near full phenotypical maturity. Older animals marble much easier than younger ones. The paradox is that meat ossifies as it gets older and becomes tougher. Apparently, as far as beef eating quality is concerned, the increase in marbling more than offsets the drop in tenderness.

Research at the University of Nebraska found that when two pieces of meat with equal tenderness (as mechanically tested) are used in preference trials, the meat with the most marbling will invariably be chosen as the tenderest. Apparently, the human mind connects juiciness with meat tenderness even though there is no physical correlation.

Where we have a real potential problem with meat tenderness is with older animals that haven't marbled. I have had several readers tell me they have tried to produce French style beef by eating their culled dairy cows and have been very disappointed with the result. No doubt this was because the animals were not properly fattened. Genetics could also be involved.

Because grass fed animals take longer to reach their mature size than grain fed animals it is very important that they have the genetic propensity to marble.

The propensity to marble is highly correlated with cow fertility. It is also correlated with an adequate plane of nutrition through the growing animal's life.

ANIMALS MUST BE GAINING AS YEARLINGS TO MARBLE

Animal nutritionist, Dr. Dick Diven, said there are two critical moments in a growing animal's life.

The first critical moment is immediately after an animal is born. If an animal is shorted in its nutritional needs in its first few days of life when the nerve and muscle cells are still being formed the animal will be permanently damaged. This type of calf is known in North America as a "dogie."

The second most critical moment is when the animal reaches 65 percent of its final mature bodyweight. Typically, this point is reached around the animal's first birthday or around 700 pounds on an 1100-pound steer.

Diven said if the animal is gaining weight when it reaches this "critical point" it will develop the ability to marble at maturity. If it is losing weight, it will never marble no matter how well you feed it later in life.

Diven said the weight gain at this point does not have to be extremely rapid but it must be positive.

He said weight loss prior to this critical point appears to have no lasting ill-effect on the subsequent cell formation of the kidney fat, inter-muscular seam fat and subcutaneous fat.

This is why it is critical in a vertically integrated grass fed program that the cows' calving be timed to occur during a genuine grass surplus. This ensures that the calf when it reaches its "critical point" as a yearling will also have plenty to eat and will develop the ability to marble. Of course, this also ensures a high cow breed-back and a low cow-wintering cost as well.

The USDA Select degree of marbling has been found to provide the optimum level of eating quality. Getting animals fatter than this can actually diminish the eating quality of the meat. Taking cattle into the USDA Choice or Prime grade can result in a "greasy" feel in and around the mouth that many consumers find extremely unappetizing.

MEAT pH AND TENDERNESS

You can do everything right in the pasture and still have it all fall apart on the last day of the animal's life if you are not careful.

The pH of the muscle of a living animal is slightly higher than neutral at 7.1. For optimum eating quality, meat should have a pH of 5.3 to 5.7, which is slightly acidic.

For meat to drop in pH requires the presence of an energy compound in the muscle called glycogen.

Glycogen is converted to lactic acid following death and bleeding. It is this lactic acid that causes the pH to decline to the acceptable levels.

Meat with a pH higher than 5.7 will generally be unacceptably tough and will be dark in color.

Glycogen also helps animals cope with stress.

FAT ANIMALS HANDLE STRESS BETTER

The loading and unloading, transport, and lack of normal feed at the abattoir all create stress on the animal. One of the greatest stressors on cattle is being alone. Cattle on the way to slaughter should always be transported as pairs and never as singles.

Cattle at the abattoir should never be mixed with strange cattle as this is also highly stressful and can result in fighting.

Animals cope with stress by tensing up in preparation for "flight or fight" or by continually moving about. This movement and muscle tension depletes the animal's stores of glycogen and can result in tough meat from an animal that has been genetically selected for tenderness and well fattened.

This is why a gentle, calm disposition in the animal is necessary for good eating meat.

Keep in mind that a poor-temperament animal not only results in his meat being tough but by continually keeping his pen mates at the abattoir constantly moving can result in the whole group having tough meat.

Poor temperament, flighty and nervous cattle can be identified early in life and should be culled from the herd at weaning.

PEN AND FEED HAY BEFORE TRANSPORT

Pastured animals are much more stressed by transport than feedlot animals because they have never been forced to be really close to other animals.

Research in New Zealand has found that transport and abattoir stress is reduced if the animals are penned and fed dairy quality hay for ten days to two weeks prior to transport. This penning helps the animals become comfortable with being close to other animals and reduces their flight zone.

In fact, the New Zealanders say the only real benefit of feedlotting cattle in increasing meat eating quality comes from the stress reduction aspects of the close penning.

The hay prevents the animals from emptying out quickly and becoming hungry during transport and the wait at the abattoir. At many abattoirs only water is given to the animals. Having hay at the abattoir similar to what was fed at home would help relieve stress on the animals and encourage then to settle down quickly.

SPAY ALL HEIFERS

You should seriously consider spaying all heifers designated for meat production.

The high plane of nutrition that will produce meat marbling will cause heifers to cycle and result in the associated behaviors of continually moving about and mounting her pen mates at the abattoir. This excites the whole group of animals and can deplete their glycogen supply.

Research in Australia has found that it takes nine to 15 days on a high quality forage to rebuild depleted muscle glycogen reserves.

The amount of muscle glycogen in the animal is directly correlated to the degree of fatness of the animal. Fat animals can take more stress before it affects meat quality because they have greater glycogen reserves.

So in conclusion, let's sum up the factors involved in a quality piece of meat: * A muscle pH of less than 5.7.

* Enough marbling to grade USDA Select.

This will come from animals that have been:

* Genetically selected for easy fattening on grass.

* Kept at an adequate plane of nutrition through the critical yearling stage.

* Managed so as to have calm, quiet dispositions.

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