January 21, 2009

Cattle farm husbandry - cattle for meat

Cattle, farming, husbandry, meat, the law, slaughter, marketing, meat schedules, selling options, dressing (killing out percentage), transport, hormone growth promoters.

By Dr Clive Dalton

Meat cattle need careful handling as bruises don't show on the outside!

Meat and the law

After over 100 years in the meat exporting business, a mass of legislation has grown up in New Zealand to protect producers, processors and exporters, so farmers need to be aware of this fact and where necessary comply with it. Remember the customer is always right! So there is:
  1. The Meat Act 1981
  2. The Biosecurity Act 1993
  3. The Animals Product Act 1999
  4. The Biosecurity (Ruminant Protein) Regulations 1999
  5. The Biosecurity (Animal Identification Systems) Regulations 1999

When are cattle ready for slaughter?

Would you make more money sending these cattle to the meat
worksor keep them a bit longer to put some more weight on them?
What's pasture growth going to be like in the next few months?
What should you do? Where do you get advice from someone you can trust!

The main question in farming cattle for meat is when will they be ready for slaughter? This can be a tricky question because of the Beef Carcass Classification or Grading System used in New Zealand, and you would be wise to become familiar with it and seek good advice before you do anything.
  • Beef in New Zealand is either “prime” beef which is exported as cuts, either as chilled or frozen. Chilled beef gets the top price. Then there is “processing or manufacturing” beef which is boned, boxed and frozen before export.
  • The grading system is designed to farmers for what the meat company considers the export market wants, and penalise them for what is not wanted such as over-fat animals.
  • It assesses the maturity, sex, fat cover over the 12th rib and muscling of the carcass (called the GR measurement), to work out the payment rate.
  • There are three muscling classes and four fat classes. Fat cover is especially important these days as consumers generally don’t want fat. Some fat is required but not in excess.
  • The range in the fat covers in each class goes from L at 3mm, P from 3-10mm, T from 11-16 to finally F at 17mm or over. Fat class P is usually the one quoted in schedules published in the farming press.
  • If you sell steers, heifers (with no more than 6 permanent incisors), or cows (with more than 6 permanent incisors), then these carcasses will be graded. Bulls are not graded so you get paid on weight alone.
  • There is also a grade for vealers. These include maiden heifers, steers or bulls that are not showing masculine characteristics up to 14 months of age. Few of these are produced these days.
  • So you need to work out the weight range that the carcass will fall into for its sex, then the fat class, and then its muscling score.
  • Then you have the challenge of working out other options. For example, would you be better off to keep the stock longer and go up another weight class and be paid for more weight, but risk the penalty of going up a fat class too and being penalised. Can you see why you may need some advice?

Typical meat schedule prices
The table below is an example of a typical Meat Schedule available from meat companies or published on specialist websites for a particular week for North Island beef. For South Island take off 10c/kg.

Key points from the table
  • It lets you see how things are this week and how things have changed recently.
  • The real skill is to predict what’s going to happen in the weeks ahead and whether you should buy or sell taking into account the weather, pasture growth, what’s happening in the US economy, changes in the exchange rate, saleyard rumour and downright lies!
  • There’s a challenge for a smart young IT person to write some software for a palm computer to predict all this for you – but it would take a lot of the fun out of it.

Killing out or dressing percentage
  • The meat company pays you for the weight of the carcass, so now comes the question of how much of the live animal you sent to the meat plant weighed out as a carcass.
  • The carcass weight, taken immediately after slaughter when hot is the animal’s total live weight, less the weight of intestines and their contents, head, feet, tail, testicles and penis, kidneys and channel fat, and fat trimmed off other parts. In other words it’s the weight of the animal after its carcass has been “dressed”.
  • So the terms Killing Out Percentage (KO%) or Dressing Percentage are used and are calculated by dividing the hot carcass weight by the live weight and multiplying this by 100 over 1.

[(Hot carcass weight)/(Live weight without fasting)] x [100/1]

The values vary quite a bit depending on the way cattle were fed – see table below:

  • It’s important to remember that if you weigh stock before they leave the farm, they will vary greatly in the amount of “fill’ or gut contents, and this may come as a big surprise when you see the KO%. Gut fill in adult cattle can range from 12 to 22% of the live weight of a beast.
  • The longer you empty stock out by leaving them on a bare paddock or yard before slaughter, the less the loss will be.

  • Meat company buyers who come to your farm are very experienced at looking at live animals and predicting their carcass weight. However, having an on-farm live weight is a great help for them to give you more confidence in their predictions.
  • The killing sheets from the meat company give you the final true picture including killing charges, and it’s interesting and often frustrating to see on these sheets what defects like bruising and old injection abscesses cost you, especially if these were not have been of your doing!

Fit for human consumption?
  • After slaughter and processing, every carcass whether for export or the domestic market is checked by a meat inspector from Asure (New Zealand) Ltd on behalf of the New Zealand government by the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, to make sure it is fit for human consumption.
  • Any carcass that fails to pass inspection is condemned and rendered down for blood and bone fertiliser
  • After passing inspection, the carcass is weighed while still warm, and graded by a meat grader employed by the meat company and regularly audited by AusMeat.

Transporting stock to slaughter
Prime cattle for slaughter are a quality export product so remember the following:
  • At least a week before transport, sort out stock for slaughter into their new groups to give them time to sort out their new social order. So they wait for slaughter and end their days with their mates.
  • This is to avoid stress which affects the pH of the meat. This reduces shelf life when sold as a higher-value chilled product in supermarkets rather than just frozen.
  • Ideally meat should have a pH of around 5.5 and it’s acceptable up to 5.8. This will produce good red meat that will be excellent to eat. In a range from 5.8 to 6.2, the meat begins to be unacceptable and tough.
  • Above 6.2 and up to pH of 7.0, the meat will be relatively tender but will go a dark colour and will spoil quickly and have little flavour on cooking. Dark meat when displayed in a supermarket has little customer appeal and shoppers assume it is “going off”.
  • If the stock have horns, get the vet to dehorn them (using an anaesthetic) at least a month before slaughter and never buy stock with horns in future. The vet’s account will remind you of this!
  • After sorting or any vet treatment, put stock on good pasture to build up their glycogen levels.
  • On the day of transport, muster them quietly and let them empty out on a bare paddock or yard with water for at least 8 hours without disturbance. This will keep them cleaner in the truck and reduce the effluent that may contaminate the highway.
  • If the transporter is late - don’t let your stock be sacrificed by rushing them, in a bid to make up lost time.
  • Load stock quietly without sticks or dogs and only minimal use of an electric probe if needed. Check for any protruding nails or bolts that will damage hides and bruise meat when loading and fix these before the truck arrives.
  • Ensure the loading ramp is safe and the truck can back up squarely to it, leaving no gap for legs to get down and cause injury so they cannot be sent for slaughter.
  • By law, animals must be able to take their full weight on all four feet to be acceptable for transport. Any animal that cannot will require a veterinary certificate before the truck operator or meat works will accept it.
  • A meat processing plant does not accept defective stock or what used to be known as “mercy kills” such as stock with broken legs. Such animals now have to go for pet food which also now has special requirements regarding drug withholding periods.
  • All stock must also be accompanied by the correct Tb documentation (on the Animal Status Declaration or ASD) before the truck driver will pick them up.
  • Only use reliable transport operators who will give your stock a quiet ride to the meat plant. If transport staff are rough with your stock, don’t use them again and tell the company why. You have been preparing a high quality product for perhaps 14-18 months and to have it ruined by poor handling on its last day is unacceptable.
  • Make sure the truck is clean before your stock are loaded - it is supposed to be.
  • Ensure the truck operator does not mix your stock with others to save space. This is where fighting and bruising happens.
  • The frustrating thing is that when your stock get to the works, they are often hosed down with cold water from a high-pressure hose to remove dung from their coats, or they are walked through a bath up to their bellies in cold water. This, together with all the strange smells at the works certainly adds to stress and cannot help the quality of the meat.

Presentation of cattle for slaughter
Again because of legal requirements, meat companies have strict standards about stock accepted for slaughter, so they meet the very strict standards set by the overseas markets. As a result the companies require an “Animal Status Declaration” (ASD).
  • If you have any pangs of frustration when filling this in, just remember we have no choice as farmers are in the food business, and red meat is a health food. You’ve got to believe it!
  • The question asking if the animals were born on your property and if not have you had them for 60 days or more is very important here. If you have just purchased the stock, you should have obtained an Animal Status Declaration form from the previous owner.
  • If you didn’t, then “the worst case situation” applies which means the meat company cannot slaughter them for a 60-day withholding period. This can cost you extra feed and they may also get overfat.

Hormone growth promotants (HGP)
A growth promotant based on a natural oestrogen can be used legally in New Zealand with a trained technician present at the time of application. This is claimed to improve growth rate (23% increases are quoted), feed conversion and meat yield.

All treated animals must carry a special orange tag in one ear to warn future buyers and meat companies of the treatment as meat and offal is banned from some markets. Users must keep a full auditable record of treatments. See your veterinarian for details.

Despite the benefits to farmer profit, some meat companies now comment that they would prefer not to have to process HGP beef as they are under increasing pressure from non-EU markets not to send them the product. The extra care needed in processing ads greatly to their costs and some are signaling that they will be discounting the product in the future.

Disclaimer This material is provided in good faith for information purposes only, and the author does not accept any liability to any person for actions taken as a result of the information or advice (or the use of such information or advice) provided in these pages.

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