Canada’s beef processors are paying more to deal with carcass defects, even though body condition scores have improved.
Results from the 2016-17 National Beef Quality Audit show that the cost of carcass defects has risen steadily since the first national audit in 1994 and now tops well over $100 million.
The first national audit since 2010-11, results cover 75 per cent of Canadian cattle slaughter and included three visits to plants in fall and winter 2016 and spring 2017, according to Mark Klassen, director of technical services for the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association. Klassen presented results during a Beef Cattle Research Council webinar in February.
Liver discounts cost industry the most out of any measured defect and also saw the largest jump in loss over 2011 levels. Liver defects in 2016 accounted for almost $21 a head and $61.2 million in total, up from $9.36 a head in the last audit.
With the exception of fed cattle during the winter, there was a marked increase in livers with at least one active abscess and inflammation. Non-fed cattle showed increased liver defects across all three visits.
“An abscessed liver cannot be sold for human consumption and, depending on the severity of it, it can either be used for pet food or condemned,” Klassen said.
Of the livers followed by the audit, 68 per cent were fit for humans, while almost a quarter went to waste.
Fewer whole carcasses were condemned in 2016, tongue discounts dropped to near nothing and polled horns now account for over 90 per cent of both fed and non-fed cattle, but tag costs (manure and mud on the hide) hit about $30 million and injection site lesions are on the rise, although most of those lesions are minor.
“A very dirty animal coming in, so a lot of tag on that hide, means that it slows down your slaughter line and it gives you more chance for contamination and more trimming because of that,” Calvin Vaags, CEO of True North Foods near Carman, said. “That can be a very significant thing and it’s kind of a seasonal thing too.”
Seasonal tag fluctuations will come as no surprise to anyone who has moved cattle during the cool, wet parts of the year. Winter was the worst for dirty hides, the audit found.
“It’s not an insignificant cost we’re looking at, somewhere in the range of $10 per head,” Klassen said. “Ultimately, this is a challenge because weather, as we know, is beyond the control of the cattle producer.”
The percentage of non-fed cattle carcasses with tag over doubled to 57.3 per cent, but was still far below fed numbers (85 per cent, largely unchanged from 2010-11).
Klassen suggested better drainage in pens and research into new bedding material as possible solutions.
Body condition was a more positive note, with fewer animals in the extreme ends of body condition score (BCS).
Grossly overweight fed cattle dropped, at least in spring 2017. Only 4.1 per cent of fed carcasses at that time rated a BCS score of five, the highest available.
“It’s probably fair to say that the average cow now in the herd is pretty much at what we would recommend between that 2.5 to three range, in the spring maybe a little outside of that, but pretty good all around,” Klassen said, but added, “The fed cattle continue, as they were in 2010-11, to be on the fatter side. The scores are over four in most cases.”
Between 45 and 87 per cent of fed carcasses rated a BCS score of four across plant visits.
Non-fed cattle were a good news story. About 15.4 per cent of carcasses in the fall and 0.9 per cent in the spring had a BCS of one, down from 19.4 per cent and 6.2 per cent in the last audit. On the other end of the spectrum, only 0.7 per cent of both fall and spring carcasses hit a BCS of five, down from four per cent and 4.3 per cent in 2010-11. Winter scores were unchanged.
Klassen noted that the number of very thin non-fed cattle has been in decline over the last three audits.
Major bruises, those needing a pound and a half of meat trimmed, were more than cut in half. Only 6.8 per cent of carcasses had a major bruise, down from 16.4 per cent in 2010-11. Major bruises plummeted for both fed and non-fed cattle.
Bruising in general improved in non-fed cattle. In the previous audit, 87.5 per cent of carcasses had some level of bruising, a number now down to 63 per cent.
“The challenge that we have with this is that the producer will lose money due to reduced carcass weight from trimming of bruises, but they won’t necessarily know where those bruises were or, in some cases, even that they had bruises,” Klassen said.
CCA is attempting to track bruise locations on the carcass in the hope that producers can narrow down how the bruises happened and avoid them in the future.
What’s in the cooler?
Heavy fed cattle have played into lower yield grade, something Klassen says is compounded since packers face volume shortages and are less likely to discount heavier animals.
Average carcass weight hit 864 pounds in the recent audit, over 50 pounds heavier than the audit before.
“A very core attribute of the Canadian beef advantage, namely, yield, is no longer what it once was,” Klassen said.
Only 37 per cent of carcasses made the top yield grade in 2016-17, down from 52 per cent in the previous audit. Meanwhile, the lowest yield grade has seen a noticeable jump.
“Packers are indicating across the board that when these carcasses get to the (fabrication) floor, there is a significant loss of yield,” Klassen said. “Much of that loss is external fat which the consumer doesn’t see at retail because they’re trimmed to a specific specification, whatever it might be, but it does represent a loss to the sector.”
Those same factors may play into a quality jump even as yield decreases, he added.
The audit found prime quality and AAA beef accounted for 2.6 per cent and 64.1 per cent of the beef in 2016-17, up from 1.2 per cent and 52.5 per cent, respectively.
Ian Jensen of Killarney Meats says his finances are not generally impacted by tag and don’t see much loss with bruising or injection site lesions.
“Our meat inspector’s got a pretty sharp eye and very rarely does he notice a needle site,” he said.
His facility does occasionally deal with liver abscesses, although he agreed that body condition in general has improved.
“We deal with a lot of direct marketers here,” he said. “There’s a lot of farmers who do custom processing at our facility and then sell into the larger urban centres, say Brandon or Winnipeg. They are really going heads and above, trying to bring in a really good animal.”
Bruises and injection site lesions have, likewise, failed to make waves at True North Foods.
Vaags says they have few issues with bruises and injection site lesions, although liver problems are “endemic” in the region.
“A lot of it is liver fluke damage,” he said. “We have a pile of liver fluke damage.”
Parts of Manitoba have become hotbeds for liver flukes, with the parasites causing hemorrhaging in the liver and, in acute cases, other organs. Producers in southeastern Manitoba, in particular, have reported infestations for years.
Vaags did not mark any main trends in BCS or grade, noting only that his plant’s small size makes it difficult to mark trends in those areas.
“Compared to the big guys, we don’t have enough numbers going through,” he said. “We also kind of buy a lot of the outlier type of cattle, so if there’s a farmer out there who has heavy cattle, rather than send them somewhere else, you might send them here.”
The Canadian Cattlemen’s Association is looking for feedback on audit results. A survey is underway for producers, retailers, food-service representatives and packers to give their take on developing priorities.
Audit results will star in a string of 15 videos in the near future.
Verified Beef Production Plus will also have a role in spreading insights, Klassen said.
The CCA now hopes to benchmark Canadian results with other countries.