Sunday, January 1, 2012

Why Some Beef Is Better Than Others

The Advantages of More Traditional Farming Methods

We are at a time when the political animal in Britain has woken up to the fact that the growth in population, both here and worldwide, means that we cannot as a nation continue to rely on cheap imports and must do something to reverse the decline in farming suffered over the last decade and beyond. As populations grow and governments around the world are pressurised to feed their own peoples rather than export to earn pounds and dollars, so we must make use of our resources and not squander them by allowing so many farmers to leave the land in order to earn a basic living wage. Eating what's produced locally also answers many of the questions raised about Food Miles and the effects on CO2 emissions.

This scenario has resulted in much discussion about high tech agriculture such as GM crops and the further intensification of industrialised farming. But there are huge tracts of land in the UK just not suitable to such exploitation and yet they too have their place in feeding the nation. Indeed, recent research even indicates that a combination of traditional breeds and low-input grazing could be the solution to re-discovering the delicious beef of Olde England!

Extensive work has been undertaken in recent years by a group of scientists at Bristol University led by Professor Jeff Wood. They have been studying the differences between breeds of beef cattle raised on grass and silage, without cereal-based compound feeds, and how they perform. The work in particular studied comparisons of different breeds of cattle grazing marginal grasslands; typically SSSIs - sites of special scientific interest - which are herb rich and totally natural compared with improved grasslands where varieties of herbage are limited and rely of nitrogen-based fertilizers to grow in abundance - the typical improved grasslands used for grazing by most farmers in the UK. Analysis of the pastures showed that on the three unimproved sites, the number of plant species was between 51 and 65 whereas the improved pasture supported just 33 species.

Many modern agriculturalists would scoff at the notion of being able to produce quality beef in a limited timeframe purely on grass and silage or hay - which are preserved forms of grass for winter feed. The limitation on times comes from the 30-month rule imposed in the wake of BSE which means that nearly all beef cattle are slaughtered now by that age. Yet not only did traditional British breeds such as Longhorn, Belted Galloway, Beef Shorthorn and Traditional Hereford, ('Traditional' indicates that the animals have purely British genes), produce top quality beef from such a regime, they were also more likely to produce 'finished' carcasses (with enough fat for good eating quality) than commercial Charolais cross animals raised the same way.

Professor Wood was delighted with the results: "There was anecdotal evidence that some of the older breeds which went out of fashion had special characteristics worth preserving but nobody had ever measured the results scientifically and we were all surprised at how well the traditional breeds performed in our tests. Not only did the older breeds grow as well as the modern hybrids on unimproved pastures but the quality of the carcases was comparable and the eating quality was markedly better."

The traditional breeds selected were all in danger of becoming extinct just 30 or 40 years ago until the establishment of the charity, the Rare Breeds Survival Trust (RBST), one of the partners in the experiment. Farming is a fashion industry and the dominance of the supermarkets has led to a concentration on cross-breds using mostly continental breeds in their make-up such as Charolais, Simmental, Belgian Blue etc. These animals grow rapidly when fed on high-performance diets and produce large, lean carcases favoured by the mass market.

That is fine where cultivated grassland is readily available and there are cheap cereals to form the basis of compound feeds but such practices are not possible on marginal land which forms a very high proportion of the land available for farming in the UK. This research therefore shows that there are animals available which will produce high quality beef with relatively little or no input which is altogether a good thing when it comes to reducing the carbon footprint. Further, such marginal land benefits hugely from being grazed in this way as these native breeds help prevent the pasture being overtaken by scrubland plants such as birch, brambles, gorse etc. This type of 'natural' management of such environments is known as 'Conservation Grazing' and is now recognized as an important element in managing our countryside and preserving our 'green and pleasant land'.

It should not surprise anyone that these old breeds are better adapted to such conditions. Their long pedigrees confirm that they were developed over centuries and were ideally suited to the environment, climate and topography of their native islands.

Another clear advantage to meat raised on grass instead of compound feeds is that it has a significantly higher level of the beneficial omega-3 fatty acids in its make-up. This is the same polyunsaturated ingredient that makes oily fish in our diet such a health benefit. Yet fish resources are becoming ever more scarce as over-fishing around the world threatens viable stocks so maybe a more careful shopping habit when it comes to buying meat might help to overcome the pressure on scarce resources from the oceans.

Professor Wood was excited about the eating quality of the end product from this four-year long trial. "We use a carefully selected and trained taste panel at Bristol University and the results showed a marked difference in perceptions of tenderness, juiciness and beef flavour with the traditional breeds being ahead consistently. Furthermore, we did experiments on hanging the beef both in terms of the length of time the meat was hung and the method used.

"Beef hung for 28 days was more tender than that hung for just 10 days and the beef flavour changed subtly, with longer hanging producing an increase in what the panellists described as 'abnormal flavour'. This is in fact the flavour prized by many in seeking well-hung meat.

"But a significant difference was noted from the taste trials comparing the different types of hanging or conditioning. The old-fashioned method still used by some traditional butchers is to hang the carcase cut into four quarters on the bone which we call 'dry-ageing'. The method used in most of the mass market - supermarkets and the major caterers - is 'wet-ageing' where the meat is cut from the bone and matured in vacuum-packed bags where all oxygen is excluded. Previous work showed no real difference in the eating quality between the two but this experiment showed clear preferences for the dry-aged beef especially in terms of texture, beef flavour and the overall liking of the product."

So, a four-year scientific analysis has shown up a number of very important results. For farmers, especially those working marginal land, you can produce high quality beef using our traditional native breeds on a low-input system. Further, as more discerning shoppers discover the extra eating quality of such meat, so specialist shops are willing to pay a premium for the real thing with a provable provenance that ticks all the boxes. Furthermore, you can produce such beef naturally using grass only without having to use expensive fertilizers or compound feeds.

That too is good for the environment. This is farming with minimal increases to the carbon footprint. Cattle can usefully help to conserve the environment through Conservation Grazing producing a high quality product at the end of the process.

And for the consumer too there are considerable advantages. Selective shopping will provide beef from our traditional breeds which has significant advantages in eating quality. Go to traditional butchers, farmers markets, farm shops etc where there is provenance as to where the beef came from and how and where it was farmed. But beware some supermarkets who claim breed benefits - scrutiny of the small print reveals that these are often cross-bred cattle! There are health benefits too from selecting grass-fed beef with raised levels of omega-3 fatty acids. Eating quality can be improved further by seeking out retailers who hang their beef in the traditional way on the bone. If it doesn't specify on the label how it's been hung, the chances are it used the wet-ageing method.

This research was funded by Defra with support from RBST, Natural England and the Traditional Breeds Meat Marketing Co Ltd.

Richard Lutwyche was the first person to recognise the importance of 'Conservation through Consumption' and began promoting the eating qualities of rare and traditional breeds back in the 1980s. He persuaded the charity, the Rare Breeds Survival Trust to put their back into it as a conservation initiative and they launched the Traditional Breeds Meat Marketing scheme in the mid 1990s and brought him in to run it. In 2002 it was seperated from the RBST and became the Traditional Breeds Meat Marketing Company which he continued to run. Over this time it has become hugely successful in promoting the delicious eating qualities of rare breeds, more and more of which are moving to safer numbers as a direct result.

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