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Cow and bull beef audit shows continued progress

Improvements in practices and communication still needed.

In the U.S. beef industry, sales of cull breeding animals now contribute up to 20% of operational gross revenue for both beef and dairy operations. The reasons for marketing these dairy and beef animals are varied, but the 2016 National Beef Quality Audit, which is commissioned by the Beef Quality Assurance (BQA) program, revealed that it is imperative for the industry to understand the factors that lead to improved quality and minimize economic losses. BQA and the National Dairy FARM Program shared the results during a news conference this week at the 51st World Dairy Expo (WDE) in Madison, Wis.

The beef industry first conducted a market cow and bull audit in 1994 to complement the National Beef Quality Audit program for fed steers and heifers. That report, conducted by Colorado State University, found that harvest cows and bulls were often not being marketed in a timely manner. Instead, producers showed a tendency to wait until the physical condition of cattle had deteriorated. According to BQA, this contributed to numerous problems down the production line, including beef and dairy cows that frequently had inadequate muscling at harvest, too many market cows that were disabled prior to harvest, too many market cattle and carcasses that were condemned and too many carcasses that had excessive bruises.

As part of the 2016 National Beef Quality Audit, face-to-face interviews were conducted with 194 representatives of the different market sectors. The latest results showed that fewer beef buyers actually understand the types of cattle from which their products are being sourced.

Colorado State University meat scientist Dr. Keith Belk, one of the principle investigators, told WDE attendees that many in the supply chain did not know that dairy cattle were part of the beef industry as well.

“We need to re-engage these folks downstream to a greater extent because they don’t know what they’re are purchasing. They don’t understand the things we do upstream to help protect the quality and safety of the product. So, that could become a problem for us moving forward,” Belk said.

During the audit, one foodservice operator noted, “The beef industry needs to do a better job of helping beef buyers understand the products they’re purchasing. People don’t know that cows and bulls supply beef to the industry.”

Results also revealed that the image of the industry among each sector varied significantly. In fact, an equal number of packers saw the industry as negative as they did positive. Half of retailers and more than half of the government and trade organization (GTO) representatives saw the image of the industry as positive.

Economics, quality and value were considered strengths of the cow and bull industry, while weaknesses focused more on animal welfare aspects, with timeliness of marketing identified as a key production shortcoming by beef packers. Foodservice, GTO personnel and further processors cited animal welfare as a primary weakness of the market cow and bull sector.

Belk pointed out that even if a beef quality protocol is in place, it would have to evolve constantly, since the priorities of the supply chain are ever-changing.

Quantifying how quality challenges in the industry affect the bottom line helps provide a better understand of the difference improvements can make. Each audit has calculated the economic opportunities lost from the value of the quality defects identified during the in-plant assessments. While challenges arise in each audit during this exercise, because prices sometimes aren’t reported or changes in data collection occur over time, there was a large increase in lost opportunities from 1999 to 2016. In fact, the total lost opportunity for carcass defects was $59.73 in 1994, but it rose to twice that cost in 2016 at $122.77.

The biggest driver in this change, according to the audit, was the increase in value for virtually all of the products, including byproducts, associated with cows and bulls.

Overall, the report said there have been improvements in the market cow and bull beef sector since 2007. However, additional progress can still be made by focusing on food safety, as it has become the most important factor to those who purchase beef.

Nonetheless, the 2016 results showed that the cattle industry continues to make progress in reducing defects that negatively affect beef quality. For example, lameness in cull cattle has improved significantly, as 76% of cull cattle were identified as sound. Body condition scores of cull cattle have also improved, with only 9.3% identified as “too thin,” compared to 22% in 2007. Additionally, the number of blemishes, condemnations and other attributes that detract from value remained minimal.

Areas that could still use improvement include appropriate management of cull cows and bulls to increase muscle condition before harvest; culling animals before physical defects are too severe and cause animal welfare concerns or carcass condemnations; seeking to better understand causes of liver abscesses, the leading reason for liver condemnation; implementing measures to eliminate carcass bruising on the farm, in transport and at the harvest facility, and reducing defects to allow the cow and bull industry to capture additional value.

The audit also revealed that the industry needs to do a better job communicating the progress.

“The research proved the cattle industry has a great story to tell but also suggests we aren’t getting that story to as many people as we should,” said Josh White, executive director of producer education for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Assn. “Utilizing the Beef Quality Assurance and FARM programs and the shared principles more uniformly throughout the beef and dairy industries can not only enhance industry commitment to better beef but would help increase consumer confidence and encourage greater beef demand. This research suggests that carrying the BQA and FARM message throughout the industry will benefit every beef audience.”

Work within the dairy industry will be especially important: Belk pointed out that the audit showed that the number of Holstein or dairy-type cattle increased from 5.3% in 2011 to more than 20% in 2016.

Belk explained that the dairy cattle part of the industry is making up a significantly greater proportion of the fed cattle beef supply now than it ever has because companies are creating programs specifically for dairy cattle products.

“They are attaching eating quality characteristics to those cattle, and they’re being marketed at a higher value. So, this is an opportunity for the dairy industry, in my opinion,” he said.

Any dairy farm participating in FARM Animal Care Version 3.0 will receive BQA certification equivalency. The two programs work collaboratively through their partnership to provide a collection of resources for producers.

“As dairy cows continue to grow as an integral part of the U.S. beef supply, these results demonstrate that producers are dedicated not only to producing a safe, wholesome, high-quality milk product but also to showing that same dedication to the meat produced by the dairy sector,” said Jim Mulhern, president and chief executive officer of the National Milk Producers Federation. “The FARM Program’s partnership with BQA has produced valuable resources that help nurture an environment of continuous improvement for beef and dairy cattle.”

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