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Sharing the grade

The sharing of grading information is being seen as a necessary step for the future development of Canada’s beef business

Beef industry consultant Charlie Gracey weaves his way through several sticking points to conclude feedlots, and ultimately, packers are out of excuses for not sharing carcass information with cow-calf producers.

“Now the industry has the opportunity to move forward. All the necessary pieces are in place. Electronic identification tags make it possible to link carcass data to the individual animal. Computerized camera grading technology is available to assess marbling and lean yield. The beef information exchange system (BIXS) can be used to relay that information right back to the original producer,” he told delegates at the Saskatchewan Stock Growers Association convention earlier this summer.

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While poor feeding practices can ruin a potentially good carcass, Gracey says it is much more difficult to produce an excellent carcass out of a genetically inferior animal.

The only way to make genetic progress on carcass quality is to get carcass information back to cow-calf producers so that they can produce calves with superior genetics for quality and yield in the same carcass.

Typically, the more fat in a carcass, the lower the lean meat percentage, so shooting for marbling that brings top prices often results in excessive external fat. Gracey and others contend Canadian fed cattle have become too fat resulting is higher feed costs in the feedlot and trim losses for the packer.

The genetics for both marbling and yield from the same animal are available, but it’s not the norm, says Gracey. In a Saskatchewan plant he found one-third of 665 Canada AAA carcasses had between four and 7.5 mm of backfat, another third were between 7.5 and 10 mm, and the last third 10 mm or more. The carcasses ranged from 2.5 mm backfat all the way up to 20 mm.

“Without carcass information you will do it sometimes by accident. With carcass information you will be able to do it by design,” he says.

Lean yield has value

The first grading standards in 1929 promoted quality and eventually resulted in overly fat cattle. Revisions in 1972 led to a focus on lean at the expense of quality. The current version adopted in 1993 was intended to help producers balance quality and lean yield.

While there have been strong market signals to improve marbling, a market signal to improve lean yield hasn’t been there, Gracey says. The cattle feeder has no incentive at all to seek out and pay more for cattle with the genetic capability to deliver a carcass that has both high quality and high yield.

As a result Canada AAA and Prime quality grades increased from approximately 20 per cent in 1995 to over 60 per cent last year, while the percentage of Y1 yield carcasses decreased from near 70 per cent in 1996 to little more than 40 per cent last year. According to Canada Beef, lean meat yield in Canada averages 73 per cent with a range from 64 to 78 per cent.

Canada’s present yield grade system groups lean yield into three classes. Y1 is 59 per cent and over; Y2 is 54-58 per cent; and Y3 53 per cent and under. In effect, these groupings result in owners who sell higher-yielding cattle subsidizing those who sell lower-yielding cattle, he explains.

value of carcass yield

The reason for establishing yield classes in the first place was because there wasn’t a way to accurately predict lean yield. Now with camera grading, Gracey questions why we even bother with yield classes when we can have actual yield per cent.

He feels industry’s push to move to a five-class yield grade system, along the lines of that in the U.S., would at least be a good starting point because it would narrow the range for each class.

His calculations show that packers wouldn’t end up paying more in total than if they paid a flat price for lean yield. At a recently quoted price of $250 per hundredweight (cwt) for a 750-pound carcass in North Dakota, the prices paid for each yield class based on lean yield should have been $269.70/cwt for Y1; $255.41 for Y2; $241.12 for Y3; $231.83 for Y4; and $217.19 for Y5. That’s with no premium/discount grid involved. It’s simply paying for what the carcass yields.

A new five-class yield grade system for Canada is outlined as part of the “Beef, Bison and Veal Carcass Grade Requirements” document prepared by the Canadian Beef Grading Agency (CBGA) in consultation with industry. It is expected to be incorporated by reference in the Canadian Food Inspection Agency’s (CFIA) consolidation of food regulations being prepared as part of the agency’s modernization process. The advantage of incorporating a document by reference is that requirements can be updated as needed without having to go through the lengthy process of changing a regulation. Details are posted under the news tab on beefgradingagency.ca.

This proposal was submitted some years ago but CBGA manager Cindy Delaloye says there are indications it could be published in Canada Gazette I this fall and possibly finalized sometime in 2017.

The new proposed yield grades Canada 1 through 5 will be based on a formula that includes adjusted back-fat, rib-eye area and carcass weight.

Camera grading

Only youthful carcasses that meet marbling and other criteria to qualify for the Canada A, AA, AAA and Prime grades go on to be assessed for yield. The quality grade is based on the degree of marbling present in the rib-eye. The yield grade is currently determined using an equation and ruler developed at Lacombe Research Centre and implemented in 1992.

Gracey says the ruler is notoriously inaccurate and was intended to be a temporary tool until the computer vision system (CVS) became available.

CVS was approved by the CFIA as an aid for grading in 1999, but commercial uptake was low and the technology was sold.

A cold-carcass camera developed by e+v Technology GmbH in Germany was tested in Canada and approved by the CFIA in fall of 2010 as an aid for grading beef carcasses for quality and yield.

The three plants with moving rails — Cargill at High River, Alta., and Guelph, Ont., and what is now JBS at Brooks, Alta. — which process approximately 90 per cent of fed cattle in Canada, have installed e+v cameras. The Brooks plant was the first to use the technology for grading beginning in fall 2011, although the CBGA graders have the final approval of the camera’s assessment. Cargill plants still only use the cameras as the first step in their internal processing systems.

Given that carcass grading is voluntary, so is the use of computer technology, Delaloye explains.

So far, the e+v camera has performed up to expectations. She says the majority of overrides by CBGA graders are due to yield, either because the fat covering the rib-eye area has been torn during dressing and/or the technology mis-traces the rib-eye area when capturing the image.

The camera measures grade-fat thickness, length and width of the rib-eye, and calculates the estimated lean yield per cent and marbling score to arrive at grades for each carcass, so dressing as well as camera placement are critical to measuring yield accurately, she explains.

The operator has to place the camera flat over the rib-eye because it can only assess the rib-eye in two dimensions and can’t adjust for any tilt.

CBGA graders are incredibly consistent because they have two eyes and a whole lot of experience, Delaloye adds. The camera only sees the rib-eye, whereas graders see the entire carcass and decide whether the camera image is representative. As of yet, camera technology isn’t able to assess other carcass quality factors such as maturity, conformation, as well as meat and fat colour.

The advantage of the camera is that it is even more consistent than the grader because it assesses each rib-eye independently and objectively without memory of the previous carcass. The camera always illuminates the rib-eye in the same way, whereas a grader’s height and angle to the carcass can affect how light hits the rib-eye when evaluating marbling. It’s quick and the image with the accompanying data can be easily stored and shared.

Sharing is the glitch

“The original purpose of grading was to serve as a common language to meet the interests and needs of the entire industry and for the benefit of consumers. The grading system and the individual carcass grades weren’t intended to be owned by anyone, but now packers want to make it a profit centre,” he says.

He could have never imagined this kind of debate 20 years ago when electronic tag technology and camera grading were still in development and BIXS was only a dream. Through the years, the common excuse for not sharing carcass information with cow-calf producers was that they wouldn’t know what to do with it anyway!

Gracey concludes his message with a stern warning. “If the industry hopes to produce animals that produce carcasses that combine high quality with high yield and animals that convert feed more efficiently, it all has to begin with the person who makes the breeding decisions. An industry that does not recognize this and does not do everything possible to relay information back along the supply chain cannot and will not prosper.”

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