The beef industry has got its “report card” and it’s not living up to its potential when it comes to carcass defects.
In fact, its marks have slipped, according to the latest National Beef Quality Audit.
“When you look at the various defects and what they cost, they add up to $85 a head on fed cattle,” said Reynold Bergen, science director of the Beef Cattle Research Council.
“That $85 figure is about 15 per cent higher than it was in previous audits.”
The latest audit, conducted in 2017-18, found carcass defects are costing the industry an estimated $110 million a year. And while the per-head figure is, in part, higher because beef is worth more than it was when the last audit was done in 2010-11, it’s still lost money.
“The cost of any given defect that results in pounds of carcass or offal getting thrown away means that those pounds cost way more to throw away than they did before,” said Bergen.
The audit also noted positives — for example, the percentage of AAA/Prime carcasses increased from 54 per cent to 67 per cent. But the cost of four problem areas — tag, overfat cattle, yield grade, and liver discounts — averaged more than $67 per carcass (more than $10 higher than the previous audit).
Tag is costly because packing plants have to slow down lines to wash hides. This increases labour costs, and can decrease the value of the hide.
Some feedlot owners are trying to reduce tag by using wood chips instead of straw, but economics may not allow that and moreover, tag is largely weather driven, said Dr. Michael Jelinski, a veterinarian and co-owner at Veterinary Agri-Health Services in Airdrie.
“If there’s enough tag, it can stain the hide so it’s not worth as much,” he said. “You can do all the right things and people are encouraged to do so, but there’s a limit to what you can do there.”
Overly fat or overweight cattle are also an issue, costing an average of about $13 a head, the audit found.
“Carcasses are heavier now and there are more discounts associated with that,” said Bergen. “And that’s related to the yield grade. The longer cattle are on feed, the fatter they will be and the heavier they will be. So you run into the risk of yield grade discounts.”
The longer cattle are on feed, the greater the risk of them developing liver abscesses, a defect which averaged $24 a head. Liver abscesses, depending on the severity, mean the organ can only be sold for pet food, or condemned altogether.
But this problem also has wider implications, said Bergen.
“Liver abscesses are a concern because of the perception and the potential welfare issues around them,” he said. “Cattle are potentially suffering because of this.”
But it’s not a problem that can be easily solved. Finishing on roughage takes longer, and is way less efficient. On a roughage-based diet, the environmental impact is much higher, and more methane is produced. Researchers are currently looking to determine if a more consistent grain grind can significantly reduce liver abscesses.
“One reason we’re looking so hard at liver abscesses is that a lot of the antibiotics that are used in the cattle-feeding sector are to deal with liver abscesses,” said Bergen.
Both this issue and overweight cattle are related to herd numbers. There are fewer cattle around, but packers still want the same amount of beef, so producers are encouraged to grow their cattle bigger. There’s also a huge demand for marbled beef, said Bergen.
“We’ve increased that marbling, but it’s come at a cost in terms of liver and weight and yield and grade discounts.”
It’s possible — through both genetics and management — to produce leaner cattle with lots of marbling on the inside. Researchers also want to help producers in this regard, but this will be a long-term project, said Bergen.
The audit gave mixed marks on bruising on carcasses — there are fewer major bruises in fed cattle, but an increase in minor bruising.
In recent years, there’s been a greater emphasis on using low-stress handling techniques, but clearly more education needs to be done, said Jelinski.
The audit also found an increase in injection site lesions in both fed and non-fed cattle, although Jelinski said those findings should be approached with caution
“In this audit, what they are calling a needle injection site lesion may actually be more bruising,” he said. “I’m a little skeptical that the data reflects injection lesions as opposed to surface bruising.”
But he said he regularly talks to his clients about employing proper injection site technique, specifically using subcutaneous routes whenever possible, using appropriate volumes per injection site, and using the right injection location (in front of the shoulder).
“I think we’re doing a good job of educating on site location and all that,” he said.
However, producers are using more dart guns, which could result in more surface bruising.
While they can be useful, some drugs shouldn’t be administered through a dart and, of course, it’s difficult to consistently hit the right area with a dart gun.
“I suspect some of the injection lesions in non-fed cattle are related to the use of dart guns,” said Jelinski.
Bergen advises producers to use subcutaneous injections whenever they can, and to change needles every 10 to 15 animals.
“Some of the lesions are not due to damage from a needle,” said Bergen. “If there’s a slight contamination when it goes in, it can create an infection there and that can cause a lesion.”
If a producer needs to give a large amount of a product (more than 10 millilitres), they should spread out the doses and give one on each side, he said.
Although dart guns can work, if there’s an opportunity to restrain the animal, that’s a better way to administer a drug, said Bergen.
For more on the audit, along with a video summarizing its findings, go to beefresearch.ca.