The journey from farm to fork was highlighted to community group members from the Dumfriesshire Monitor Farm at Hartbush, Dumfries when they visited AK Stoddart’s beef cutting plant in Broxburn recently.
Hartbush farm, run by the Paterson family, is the first farm in the Quality Meat Scotland monitor farm programme to focus primarily on beef finishing. Two processing companies, AK Stoddart and Highland Meats, play an integral part in the project, working with the Paterson family and community group to look at the production of the cattle and what is required by their customers.
AK Stoddart, who also run an abattoir at Ayr which slaughters approximately 1,000 head of cattle per week, process 95% of the beef carcases at their Broxburn cutting plant.
John Craig, Operations Director for AK Stoddart, explained to the group: “With Scottish cattle prices currently so high, but with consumer resistance blocking corresponding increases in retail price, AK Stoddart and all other beef processors, need to harvest every available penny from a beef carcase to justify the purchase price.”
Innovative butchery techniques are being used to “add value” to some of the traditionally cheaper cuts. Mr Craig explained: “Even the best cattle beast in the world still has cheap cuts and by turning beef from some of those cheaper cuts, like flank or shoulder, into steaks, the meat value increases.”
Three such beef cuts now sold as steak include: flat iron, from the shoulder; skirt and bavette, from different areas of the flank.
“These steaks need considerate cooking and skilled cutting, but when done correctly they are really tender and flavoursome and they continue to grow in popularity,” said Mr Craig.
From their Broxburn plant, AK Stoddart supply a range of customers including supermarkets, ready meal manufacturers, retailers and secondary processors throughout the UK and overseas.
“Over the last couple of years the value of ‘fifth quarter’ items into overseas markets has risen, yielding a worthwhile return,” said Mr Craig.
“We’re now selling over 15 different products to export markets which, although of minimal value, previously incurred cost. This product development is increasingly important to the processing sector where the value of prime beef continues to struggle against a background of huge inflation in cattle values.”
The group was surprised to learn that AK Stoddart are currently processing a beef carcase into almost 200 different product lines.
Mr Craig outlined the ideal beef carcase for most Scottish beef processors as a carcase weight of 300 to 400 kgs, with conformation grade O plus or better and fat grade – 80% 4L, with the remainder 3 or 4H.
He also described the problem created for processors and retailers by heavy carcases. Using a traditional eight ounce sirloin steak, approximately three quarters of an inch thick as an example, he said: “To cut an eight ounce sirloin steak off a 480 kg carcass would give you a really thin steak, like a minute steak and if you cut it three quarters of an inch thick, it would be eighteen, not eight, ounces.”
With regard to fat, he said: “Excess fat is expensive for the farmer to put on to his cattle and is expensive for us to trim off. However, for a good eating experience some fat is needed and we’re finding that some of the cattle supplied, particularly young bulls at Fat Grade 2, are just too lean for the premium earning retail market.”
Some of the devaluations of a beef carcase, which can often be caused on-farm, were also discussed.
A topical livestock health issue is liver fluke, which inhibits fertility in breeding stock and performance in growing and finishing cattle.
“A fluke damaged ox liver is diverted from human consumption to pet food, with a consequent drop in value of around 60 pence per kilo,” Mr Craig told the group.
“With an ox liver weighing between five and six kilos, that’s a financial loss of at least £3 per animal. This doesn’t seem a lot, but multiplied up over a year, it amounts to tens of thousands of pounds due to the high level of fluke incidence.”
One of the most costly, yet easily avoided problems for AK Stoddart is caused by poor animal vaccination procedure.
“We’re keen to encourage farmers and vets to vaccinate animals in the least expensive meat areas, for example the neck and to also ensure that they only ever use clean needles,” said Mr Craig.
“While it might seem easiest to pop the needle into a beast’s hind quarter, a vaccination abscess in the Silverside can devalue a carcase by up to £60. In a bad week, over ten per cent of the cattle we handle have this problem, costing thousands in just one week.”
Bruising also results in the bruised area having to be cut out of the carcase, resulting in a significant loss.
“This is not an area where we have many problems as suppliers are handling cattle in the correct manner, but it’s always worth highlighting to producers to remain vigilant,” said Mr Craig.
Mr Craig also spoke of the effect on the meat of animals stressed pre-slaughter. “This can result in ‘dark cutters’, which instead of the meat being bright red, is a dark, plum colour. Pre-slaughter stress can also create ‘blood splashes’ within the meat – areas of dark discolouration. Both problems discourage customers.”
Mr Craig offered some general advice for all cattle finishers: “Go and see your cattle hanging up, particularly either the first draw off grass or out of the shed.
“By doing this you will not only ‘get your eye in’ to help you maximise your returns when drawing future batches from the same group, but if you are devaluing the eventual carcase of your cattle on farm, the best place to see the problem is in a plant like this.
“A number of our supplying farmers come in to see the carcases to ensure they are maximising the potential value of their cattle.
“Some are now bringing their vet along with them to see the effects of liver fluke and discuss better controls. It would be excellent if more farmers and vets did this – they would be very welcome!”
Many farmers believe that the high value of a beef carcase is in the hind quarter. However Mr Craig explained that the high value is along the back of the animal, being the fillet, sirloin, rump and rib steak cuts, which represent 33% of the carcass value, but are approximately just 20% of the total carcass weight.
This was one of the many revelations of the day for John Paterson, his family and the community group.
“I suspect we’re one of the many farmers who thought that as long as we keep a cattle beast alive and thriving, once it’s on the float to the abattoir, that’s us finished with it,” he commented.
“After today, however, we’ve learnt that just some small changes, for instance being more selective about where we vaccinate cattle, can make a significant positive difference to the value of the end product.
“Today has also taught us the benefit of everybody involved in the Scotch Beef industry working together as a team and developing a better understanding of how we can help each other to ensure we produce the best product possible.”
The next meeting of the Dumfries monitor farm will be in February.
Full details available from the Facilitators, Smiths Gore:
Judith Hutchison. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Matthew Currie. Email: email@example.com
James Worthington. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Telephone: 01387 263066.
For general information on monitor farms, plus detailed reports of meetings – www.qmscotland.co.uk/monitorfarms
Caption (L-R): John Craig, Operations Director for AK Stoddart and Monitor farmer John Paterson during the visit.