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In the blink of an eye

Nutrition with John McKinnon

Writing this column is somewhat of a reflective event, as it is the last column I will write as a member of the University of Saskatchewan agriculture faculty. I have been blessed to have worked at the U of S for 32 years, the last 26 of which I have served as the Saskatchewan Beef Industry Chair. This is somewhat of a unique position at a Canadian university, as it was initially funded by the Saskatchewan Beef Industry and has a mandate to work with industry in technology transfer, teaching and research. As such, I have had the privilege of interacting with students from around the world, as well as with beef producers from across the country. If readers permit, I would like to take this opportunity to reflect on some of the industry changes I have seen over the course of my career and perhaps do a bit of crystal ball gazing as to where I see the industry evolving in the future.

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Certainly the feedlot sector comes to mind when I think about change, and in particular, change that led to tremendous improvements in production efficiency. When I worked for Canada Packers as a cattle buyer in the early 1980s, heifers were typically finished at 900 to 1,100 pounds and steers at 1,100 to 1,300 pounds. A carcass weighing over 721 pounds was considered too heavy and was discounted. Today, we see finished heifers weighing 1,300 to 1,400 pounds and steers averaging 1,500 pounds, with 900-pound carcasses commonplace. Today’s cattle gain faster, are more efficient and spend significantly less time in the feedlot. While advances in nutrition and genetics have played a role, a great deal of the credit for these gains can be attributed to the development of an array of modern growth promoting tools, including hormonal implants, ionophores and beta agonists. Not only have they led to more efficient beef production, but they have reduced the environmental footprint of the industry by allowing for more beef to be produced from fewer cattle. Ironically, these same tools are increasingly the target of certain consumer advocacy groups who do not understand their impact and make unsubstantiated claims regarding the safety of the beef produced from their use.

There has also been an increasing emphasis on quality and safety of the product we produce. In the 1980s our beef grading system emphasized the production of lean beef, a trend that many in the retail and food service industries felt was having a negative influence on quality. Marbling was reintroduced into our grading system in the mid-1990s in an effort to halt this trend and to increase marketing opportunities south of the border. Since that time, producing Canada AAA carcasses has been a central focus of the industry. While this trend was a reaction to consumer demand, it has had negative consequences in terms of carcass lean content. Simply put, the push for higher-marbled carcasses in combination with heavier cattle has resulted in a greater proportion of carcasses in the higher yield grades which translates to more fat in the carcass and trim at the retail level. No doubt, the quest for the ideal carcass with continue.

In terms of food safety, the industry has also made tremendous gains, particularly in the aftermath of the BSE crisis of 2003. Credit needs to be given to oversight by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and to a proactive approach by industry. Developments such as the national ID program, premise ID, BSE monitoring and the regulations governing the use of medically important antibiotics are examples that readily come to mind. At the packing level, major innovations have been implemented in order to ensure the safety of Canadian beef. Consider the issue of E. coli O157:H7. This bacteria is a natural inhabitant of the gut of cattle and can contaminate the carcass during processing. This, in turn, can lead to human illness, particularly if undercooked beef is consumed by immune-compromised individuals. Modern packers go to great lengths to reduce such contamination including hot water and/or steam carcass treatments and the use of dilute organic acid rinses. Food safety, animal welfare and environmental stewardship have also become a central focus of production practices at the cow-calf and feedlot level. Industry-led programs such as the code of practice for beef production, the Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef Initiative and the Verified Beef Production Plus (VBP+) program are all a reaction to today’s consumer, who is increasingly interested in how their food is produced. There is no doubt in my mind that in the foreseeable future, these programs and the principles they embrace will become imbedded in our management.

While there are many other examples I could cite, I think it is fair to say that the Canadian beef industry has undergone a monumental transformation in the last three decades, growing from one that primarily focused on domestic consumption, to one of the world’s leading exporters of high-quality beef. For my part, the last three decades has gone by in a blink of an eye and I must say, it has been a privilege to witness this transformation.

About the author

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John McKinnon is a beef cattle nutritionist at the University of Saskatchewan.

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