The increased demand for animal-derived protein and energy for human consumption will have to be achieved through a combination of improved animal genetic merit and better management strategies. The objective of the present study was to quantify whether differences in genetic merit among animals materialised into phenotypic differences in commercial herds. Carcass phenotypes on 156 864 animals from 7301 finishing herds were used, which included carcass weight (kg), carcass conformation score (scale 1 to 15), carcass fat score (scale 1 to 15) at slaughter as well as carcass price. The price per kilogram and the total carcass value that the producer received for the animal at slaughter was also used. A terminal index, calculated in the national genetic evaluations, was obtained for each animal. The index was based on pedigree index for calving performance, feed intake and carcass traits from the national genetic evaluations. Animals were categorised into four terminal index groups on the basis of genetic merit estimates that were derived before the expression of the phenotypic information by the validation animals. The association between terminal index and phenotypic performance at slaughter was undertaken using mixed models; whether the association differed by gender (i.e. young bulls, steers and heifers) or by early life experiences (animals born in a dairy herd or beef herd) was also investigated. The regression coefficient of phenotypic carcass weight, carcass conformation and carcass fat on their respective estimated breeding values (EBVs) was 0.92 kg, 1.08 units and 0.79 units, respectively, which is close to the expectation of one. Relative to animals in the lowest genetic merit group, animals in the highest genetic merit group had, on average, a 38.7 kg heavier carcass, with 2.21 units greater carcass conformation, and 0.82 units less fat. The superior genetic merit animals were, on average, slaughtered 6 days younger than their inferior genetic merit contemporaries. The superior carcass characteristics of the genetically elite animals materialised in carcasses worth €187 more than those of the lowest genetic merit animals. Although the phenotypic difference in carcass traits of animals divergent in terminal index differed statistically by animal gender and early life experience, the detected interactions were generally biologically small. This study clearly indicates that selection on an appropriate terminal index will produce higher performing animals and this was consistent across all production systems investigated.