There is a paucity of data on the beef production potential of Norwegian Red (NOR) compared with ‘modern’ Holstein-Friesian (HF) cattle. The present study used a total of 64 bulls in a 2 × 2 factorial design study encompassing two breeds (HF and NOR) and two slaughter ages (485; E, and 610; L, days). The mean initial age and live weight of the HF bulls were 179 (s.d. 47.1) days and 203 (s.d. 64.0) kg, while the corresponding data for the NOR bulls were 176 (s.d. 39.7) days and 185 (s.d. 63.6) kg, respectively. Bulls were offered a 50 : 50 mixture (dry matter (DM) basis) of grass silage and concentrates. No breed × slaughter group interactions were recorded for any parameters evaluated (P > 0.05). HF bulls had higher (P < 0.001) DM intake and poorer (P < 0.01) efficiency of conversion of food to carcass gain than NOR bulls. HF bulls tended (P = 0.07) to have a higher rate of live-weight gain and were heavier (P < 0.001) at slaughter than NOR bulls, though both carcass weight and rate of carcass gain did not differ between the breeds (P > 0.05). NOR bulls had higher (P < 0.001) dressing proportion and carcass conformation score than HF bulls, while breed of bull had no influence (P > 0.05) on carcass fat classification, depth of subcutaneous fat, marbling score or on the weight of fat in the internal depots. Daily food intakes did not differ (P > 0.05) across the two slaughter age groups, though efficiency of conversion of food to carcass gain was poorer (P < 0.05) in the L compared with E bulls. Rate of live-weight gain was lower (P < 0.01) for L bulls, although rate of carcass gain did not differ (P > 0.05) between the E and L bulls. Increasing age at slaughter increased (P < 0.01 or greater) dressing proportion, carcass fat class, depth of subcutaneous fat, marbling score and internal fat depots, but had no effect (P > 0.05) on the carcass conformation score. Instrumental measures of meat quality indicated that meat from NOR bulls was tougher (P < 0.01) than meat from HF bulls, while delaying slaughter increased (P < 0.001) a* and C*ab, and decreased (P < 0.01) h0, indicating improved redness. It is concluded that NOR bulls have higher food efficiency and produce more highly conformed carcasses than HF bulls, but HF bulls produce more tender meat.