The research, carried out by Eblex and the University of Bristol, found that processors and producers could minimise the chances of producing dark cutting meat, which earns less at current market conditions, by adopting better handling practices for cattle during finishing and slaughter.
It estimates that the guidelines could increase processors' and producers’ returns by up to £160 per carcase.
The darker colour of the meat is usually caused by an increased flow of hormones to the muscles, usually the result of increased anxiety around the time of slaughter. It can be caused by mixing with unfamiliar animals during transportation and in lairage, while seasonal changes in temperature, before cattle have grown a winter coat, and a drop in dietary energy from late-season grass can also add to the problem. While all cattle can be affected, bulls are more susceptible.
Dr Phil Hadley, Eblex senior regional manager for the southern region, said: “Mixing unfamiliar animals in the 24 to 48 hours prior to slaughter can lead to fighting and mounting behaviour.
“Our research shows that the costs of ignoring this type of behaviour could have a significant impact on margins for those in the supply chain, seriously affecting the appearance and quality of the meat. Careful cattle handling is key to maximising returns.”
The advice to help avoid dark cutting meat includes:
- Never mixing bulls with unfamiliar animals at any time in the two weeks prior to slaughter
- Never holding bulls with unfamiliar animals in farm rearing pens or raceways, loading pens or transport compartments, lairage pens or raceways
- Consider rearing bulls in relatively large groups of 40 or more despite more variable growth rates to allow sufficient numbers to be drafted for slaughter with the least possible need for mixed consignments
- If regrouping, and therefore mixing, of bulls is essential for good husbandry, or if mixing occurs accidentally, keep animals in their new social groups for a minimum of two weeks before sending them for slaughter
- If individual bulls have to be removed from a pen and kept separate for a time, never return them to their original group. Instead, put them into a new group of younger, smaller animals where the size difference will prevent bullying of the single animal
- Never move groups of bulls to new pens unnecessarily and, wherever possible, avoid frequent weighing and re-tagging or clipping out within a week of slaughter
- Always make water available to bulls right up to the time of loading for slaughter, handle them quietly, set off immediately they are loaded, keep journey times to a minimum, and, preferably, slaughter them promptly on arrival.
The dedicated guide to finding out more about beef handling for better returns can be downloaded from the Eblex website.
The guidelines come as the Meat and Livestock Commercial Services Ltd (MLCSL), a wholly-owned subsidiary of AHDB, revealed that more than 90% of all beef slaughtered for the human food chain in UK abattoirs is now independently classified by its experts, an increase from 59% since March 2006. Classification services coverage to the sheep sector has also increased from 41% to 68% over the same period and for pigs slaughtered in the UK from 62% to 77%.
Carcase classification provides the basis for calculating the quality and potential meat yield from a carcase, against which the farmer is then paid by the slaughterhouse for that animal.