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Genetic parameters of carcass composition and meat quality traits in the Blackface population

Genetic parameters for carcass composition and meat quality traits were estimated in Scottish Blackface sheep, previously divergently selected for carcass lean content (LEAN and FAT lines). Computerised X-ray tomography (CT) was used to obtain non-destructive in vivo estimates of the carcass composition of 700 lambs, at ca. 24 weeks of age, with tissue areas and image densities obtained for fat, muscle and bone components of the carcass. Comprehensive measures of meat quality and carcass fatness were made on 350 male lambs, at ca. 8 months of age, which had previously been CT scanned.

Meat quality traits included intramuscular fat content, initial and final pH of the meat, colour attributes, shear force, dry matter, moisture and nitrogen proportions, and taste panel assessments of the cooked meat. FAT line animals were significantly (p<0.05) fatter than the LEAN line animals in all measures of fatness (from CT and slaughter data), although the differences were modest and generally proportionately less than 0.1. Correspondingly, the LEAN line animals were superior to the FAT line animals in muscling measurements. Compared to the LEAN line, the FAT line had lower muscle density (as indicated by the relative darkness of the CT scan image), greater estimated subcutaneous fat (predicted from fat classification score) at slaughter, more intramuscular fat content, a more yellow as opposed to red muscle colour, and juicer meat (all p<0.05).

All CT tissue areas were moderately to highly heritable, with h2 values ranging from 0.23 to 0.76. Likewise, meat quality traits were also moderately heritable. Muscle density was the CT trait most consistently related to meat quality traits, and genetic correlations of muscle density with live weight, fat class, subcutaneous fat score, dry matter proportion, juiciness, flavour and overall liking were all moderately to strongly negative, and significantly different from zero.

In addition, intramuscular fat content was positively genetically correlated with juiciness and flavour, and negatively genetically correlated with shear force value. The results of this study demonstrate that altering carcass fatness will simultaneously change muscle density (indicative of changes in intramuscular fatness), and aspects of intramuscular fat content, muscle colour and juiciness. The heritabilities for the meat quality traits indicate ample opportunities for altering most meat quality traits. Moreover, it appears that colour, intramuscular fat content, juiciness, overall liking and flavour may be adequately predicted, both genetically and phenotypically, from measures of muscle density. Thus, genetic improvement of carcass composition and meat quality is feasible using in vivo measurements.

These results have now been published and are a unique contribution to literature on the genetic control of meat quality in sheep. Furthermore, they are now beign used in the design of potential breeding programmes for genetically improving meat quality. A specific novelty is that for the first time they indicate means by which meat quality may be improved using non-destructive in vivo measurements.

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