With margins tight in the beef sector, selection and presentation for slaughter can make the difference between profit and loss.
George Allan, divisional manager with Meat and Livestock Commercial Services (MLCSL) offers some advice.
With more than 40 years working in the industry and with livestock of his own, Mr Allan provides practical training for UK livestock producers in the selection of live animals to meet buyer requirements and also to those working in abattoirs who need to develop carcase assessment and classification skills.
Over the winter months, Mr Allan will be speaking at a series of ‘Meat the Market’ workshops, organised by Quality Meat Scotland (QMS) and held at processing plants around Scotland, which will highlight key factors which need to be considered to ensure livestock meets specifications required by processors in order for producers to receive optimal returns.
Mr Allan says: “The more livestock which meets specification, the less wastage there is and farmers get paid for what they produce without being penalised.
“One of the most common mistakes is that farmers do not handle cattle often enough and, when they do, they put emphasis on the rump. For example, standing behind them when they are feeding.
“Carcase classification is done over three parts of the animal – shoulder, loin and backend, so all these areas need to be considered and these areas are where fat build-up can be identified.
“Fat costs the producer money to put on and the processor money to remove and dispose of, making it the biggest overall cost to the industry.
“Gut fill is another issue. There is no point in giving cattle their last feed before slaughter as this only creates another disposal cost for the abattoir and for a number of cattle over the year this can also make a saving in feed costs to the farmer.”
“Handling regularly will also mean cattle are quieter and less stressed when they go for slaughter, which impacts on meat quality and reduces the chance of bruising.
“Animals must also be clean, as any contamination of the carcase will be penalised and cattle will be easier to clip if they are used to being handled.”
Changes to processors’ carcase weight requirements have caused problems for some producers.
Mr Allan says: “We have come a full circle. The introduction of continental cattle in the 1970s resulted in bigger cattle all round, but now abattoirs are wanting carcases no bigger than 420kg to accommodate supermarket packet sizes.
“Breed societies are addressing this in terms of bull selection, but that is a long-term solution and farmers may need to look at their own systems and address changes they need to make to meet the new criteria.
“Of course, there are other outlets with different specifications, with some supermarkets offering premiums for native breeds and independent butchers will often take bigger carcases and a slightly fatter animal.
“But, generally, it is better to aim for the middle of the classification grid, R3 to R4L. If you get to 4H there is too much fat and below 3 there is not enough fat and this can affect the marbling and, if a carcase is too lean, it can get chill burn as it has no fat protection.
“At busy times of year it may be tempting not to draw cattle and let other jobs take precedence, but it is important they are selected at the optimum weight and fat cover to make sure the producer gets paid for everything they produce.
"If a carcase is too big and needs trimming, it will result in primal cuttings going for mince and the farmer or manufacturer not getting the value for them.”
Farmers will also be penalised if there are condemnations for parts of the carcase such as bruising and injection sites.
Mr Allan says: “Injectable medicines should be given in the neck whenever possible. If a needle is put into the rump, which is a high value cut, it will damage it for the rest of the animal’s life.
Using dirty needles may also cause abscesses resulting in scar tissue. An additional problem to the industry is liver fluke, as this will affect the growing performance of the animal, with its live weight gain, with both costs to the farmer and the abattoirs in lost revenue.
“While market prices may fluctuate, there is much that can be done to maximise returns by presenting clean animals in the target specification in terms of weight, conformation and fat for a particular market.”
For more information on the Meat the Market workshops email firstname.lastname@example.org or contact Heather McCalman on 07766 330911.