BEEF IS big business in Texas, producing only slightly less statewide income than the oil industry. But Texas beef producers are traveling a rocky road before them - challenges such as market share, lower consumer confidence in beef products, and increasing production costs.

If producers know the impact production practices, animal genetics and environment have on beef products' tenderness, juiciness, flavor and marbling, they could adapt their production systems, animals and environment to raise beef with a high market (consumer) value.

Linking beef production systems and animal genetics to higher market value is the goal of a carcass quality research project recently undertaken by Texas A&M and Texas Tech scientists. It is one of six beef industry improvement projects operating under the banner of Texas Beef Initiative - a brainchild of Texas A&M's Agriculture Program.

The Texas Beef Initiative was conceived in 1998 by the Agriculture Program's Beef Industry Team - a group of university researchers formed in 1997 by Dr. Edward A Hiler, Texas A&M's vice chancellor for agriculture and life sciences, to study present and future needs in the Texas beef industry.

"We presented the Texas Beef Initiative to the legislature in 1999, and received $250,000 per year in funding," said Charles Long, Texas Agricultural Experiment Station resident director of research at Texas A&M's Agricultural Research and Extension Center at Overton and chair of the beef industry team.

"The six projects funded are individually and collectively designed to help Texas beef producers reduce production costs, increase product consistency and consumer confidence, and develop efficient waste and odor management systems in their operations."

Texas A&M researchers at four sites began work with Texas Tech researchers on the carcass quality project in 1999. They placed 362 steer and heifer stocker calves bred at Overton, McGregor and Uvalde and weaned in mid-October on pasture at these three locations. The calves were fed different diets or grazed at different stocking rates to produce at least two rates of growth, and were kept on ryegrass pasture or native rangeland until May 2000.

"We then shipped the calves to feedlots at McGregor and Texas Tech. The calves' monthly average daily gains were recorded while they were on pasture. We will take similar performance readings while they are on feed," said Monte Roquette, Texas Agricultural Experiment Station forage physiologist at Overton. "We are interested in studying the effects of backgrounding, environment and pasture growth rate on feedlot performance. At the Texas Tech Beef Center the calves are penned in groups of five to seven head and weighed at 28-day intervals. This allows researchers to evaluate feed intake, feed efficiency and production costs according to the calves' genetic and management backgrounds, said Andy Herring, Texas Tech beef geneticist and associate professor of animal science and food technology.

The calves are then sold on the rail to a large commercial beef packer. Their carcass weight and quality and yield grades determine their end market value.

"After the calves are fed according to industry standards and slaughtered, we will evaluate their carcasses for hot weight, marbling, rib-eye area, leanness, and subcutaneous fat," Roquette said. "These traits determine the consumer value of retail beef products. We will also quantify the relationship between physical sensory characteristics and qualities such as tenderness and consumer acceptability.