Fast, calm finishing the key

By: Andrew Swallow

In Business7 Minutes

What did your beef finishers average in $/kg cwt over the past year?

Once, the only driver of that was the market price for a particular stock class on any given day, but these days the quality of carcase produced can make up to a 20% difference in price per kilogram.

So how do you ensure your beef animals earn top dollar on the day? While a proportion of it is down to genetics (see panel p51), management from weaning to slaughter is a major factor too, as Macfarlane Rural Business (MRB) consultant Jamie Gordon relayed to recent What’s The Beef* events in the South Island.

The good news is this means earning the best prices is largely within your control. The bad news is that months of careful management can all be undone in a few days or even hours if things go badly wrong.

The starting point to achieving high quality meat scores is providing a constant and adequate supply of at least moderate but preferably high quality feed, says Gordon.

“It’s no good having high quality feed if you’re only feeding it at 60% of what they require,” he stressed to delegates at the What’s The Beef event.

The higher the quality of feed offered the faster stock digest it, so not only do they grow faster thanks to the better feed, they eat more of it so there’s a “double whammy” benefit in growth rate, he added.

Rapid growth in turn translates to more tender meat, and, as animals finish, more marbling which improves cooking and flavour.

Gordon explained intramuscular fat is both the last to be laid down by the animal and, in times of stress, the first to be used up so handling just prior to slaughter is critical.

“We can do a fantastic job of finishing beef and then unravel it in the last couple of days,” he warned.

Minimise mustering distance

Mustering distance prior to yarding for transport should be minimised and other stresses, such as poor handling facilities or mixing of mobs, should be avoided.

Minimising stress in the days leading up to slaughter is also essential to achieve a low pH in meat, which in turn means meat is tender, bright coloured, and has a long shelf-life.

The low pH comes from conversion of glycogen in the muscles to lactic acid after slaughter, Gordon explained. Undue stress on the animal prior to stunning at the processing plant depletes muscle glycogen stores, so pH doesn’t drop so low post slaughter and meat quality is impaired. High feed quality in the final months of finishing boosts glycogen storage so animals are better able to cope with stresses, should any be unavoidable.

Stress may be induced psychologically, such as by unusual handling or yarding procedures or introduction of new animals into a mob, and/or physiologically for example due to hunger, thirst, oestrus, temperature extreme or injury.
Age is another key factor in meat quality. Older animals lay down more connective tissue, jeopardising meat quality, so good growth rates throughout their lives are needed to ensure they “finish” before too much connective tissue is laid down.

“Finishers need to understand which lines of cattle grow best for them and know with some certainty they will hit their target weight and quality by a certain date.”

Adequate fat cover, the traditional measure of whether an animal is finished, is important to prevent cold shortening post slaughter. Too little and meat chills too rapidly causing it to go tough, Gordon explained. Too much fat and it needs to be trimmed, which is costly and inefficient – both onfarm and for the processor.

Fat colour is driven by breed and feed, certain breeds such as Jersey taking up more of the fat-yellowing compound found in pasture, β-Carotene. Fat stores ‘turn-over’ in about 60 days which is why feedlots hold cattle on grain for at least that long to ensure all fat has gone white by slaughter.

“There’s not much we can do about fat colour because we use pasture based systems but fodder beet will reduce it,” Gordon noted.

Fodder beet finishing has also been shown to increase marbling scores, provided other stresses don’t undo the increased fat deposition the high carbohydrate feed promotes, he added.

Ensuring good animal health throughout finishing by minimising parasite pressures and avoiding mineral deficiencies is also important to maximise the chances of achieving the best quality grading, said Gordon.

“I’ve been on farms where all the deer get selenium and copper, but the cattle don’t. If in doubt, get a test done. The cattle might not get as clinically sick but they can still be deficient.”

Top tips to ensure maximum beef quality

• Fully feed finishers at all times.
• Offer as high quality feed as possible.
• Avoid all stresses as far as possible.
• Get mobs accustomed to handling facilities.
• Don’t mix mobs in final months or transport.
• Aim for consistent growth – no nutritional checks.
• Select genetics to marble – estimated breeding values (EBVs) work.

• What’s The Beef was a PGGWrightson and Angus Pure initiative run with the support of Beef + Lamb New Zealand during March and April. For more,