31st May 2011

Beef producers urged not to postpone selling finished cattle


A new report is bringing sharply into focus the financial impact and practical problems being created in the red meat supply chain by overweight and over-fat cattle.

The project was funded by Quality Meat Scotland and Scottish Enterprise, as part of a Scotland Food & Drink Sustainability Pilot Programme. It was undertaken by MLCSL Consulting and reveals too many beef producers are missing the optimal time to sell their cattle to Scottish abattoirs and, as a result, hitting quality and meat chain margins and efficiency.

In an effort to maximise income producers often seek to increase the weight of cattle, particularly in times of falling prices as seen during 2010. However, the report makes it clear that farmers who do so also often let their animals go over-fat adding to processor costs and creating quality problems further down the chain.  The learning from this will be invaluable for the industry and hopefully welcomed by producers and retailers alike.

Processors dealing with over-fat animals are incurring additional labour and processing costs. For example, trimming fat from sirloins and fore-ribs from fatter animals can increase processing time by up to 24%. 

In the case of Portlethen-based beef and lamb processor McIntosh Donald, part of VION, which agreed to their supply chain being used as an example in the project, one in five cattle going through the plant are classed as over-fat.

Four extra members of staff are required as a result of the additional work caused by excessive fat, in the cutting and retail packaging process.

McIntosh Donald has also seen an increase in the average weight of all cattle, up 20kg on the previous year.  The number of cattle that are too heavy has also increased, up to 13% of the total in some months.

Looking at the bigger picture, the report reveals retail and foodservice customers are concerned about reduced quality and excessive piece weights from heavy carcases. Beef primals from overweight carcases, are difficult to portion, pack in retail trays or sell on butchers’ counters, especially the sirloin, rib and fillet cuts, where the size and thickness of steak is important, as well as the unit price of the cut.

The difference between the retail value of the lean steak meat and the fat value is around £14 per kilo and there is 4% lower carcase yield from an R5L compared to an R4L.

And while the impact of overweight and over-fat animals on processor profitability and product quality is unquestionable, the chances are farmers choosing to hold onto their cattle too long are not adding to their bottom line, even in a rising market.

“Despite the overall year-on-year cattle price improvement, the latest information shows that the penalty in the market place for fatter cattle has increased,” said Stuart Ashworth, QMS Head of Economics Services,

“In the past six weeks the average price for an R4L steer was 1.2p/kg dwt more than for an R4H. Over the same period last year the premium was around 0.25 p/kg dwt.”

Andy McGowan, QMS Head of Industry Development, said: “One problem is  it is very difficult for farmers to add weight to animals which have passed their optimal point of selling without simply putting on fat.

“Even selling onto a rising market in very many cases producers are not generating sufficient increased return to offset the fat penalty and cost of keep. In the majority of cases they are chasing weight but creating fat.”

The project has identified a range of areas where farmers could make improvements to avoid the quality and cost implications of presenting over-fat cattle and overweight cattle for slaughter.

“Among these is improving live-to-dead assessment ability and better understanding of costs of production.  Farmers could also weigh their livestock more often so they don’t miss the optimal time of selling,” added Mr McGowan.

Report recommendations:

  • Weigh cattle regularly at the finishing stage
  • Calibrate the weigh crate each time before use
  • Visit the abattoir to see your own carcases
  • Ask the abattoir for detailed feedback on cattle supplied
  • Compare your production costs against the national averages published in the QMS Enterprise Profitability Booklet
  • Whenever possible, market cattle as soon as they are ready.
  • Aim for good, consistent daily liveweight gains in the finishing period.
  • Target systems to finish cattle under 24 months of age where possible

At tomorrow’s Beef Event at Corskie, Fochabers there will be an opportunity for producers to get a better understanding of the additional work created for processors as a result of over-fat cattle with two butchery demonstrations scheduled for 10am and 12.15pm at the QMS stand.





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