Why the South African meat classification system needs to change

meat classification
Without costing the industry a cent more, a feedlot penalty/reward system will give an incentive to cattle producers to farm the correct breed of animal, thus a more muscular animal.

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

There are two ‘material’ profit drivers in the production of beef in South Africa, namely quality and quantity.

The quality of beef produced relates to the amount of fat cover over the meat and the producer is rewarded for this in the current classification system (research is underway to enhance the classification system to reward marbling). Quality is a key profit driver as it determines the taste of meat. In addition, we are trying to develop our export markets to compete with other countries globally.

As a profit driver, the quantity of beef produced is also essential. This driver, however, is completely ignored in the current classification system and there is no incentive for the producer to produce beef with a more muscular animal.

Read more about meat labelling here.

If one visits the Ask the Meat Man website at askthemeatman.com/yield_on_beef_carcass.htm#breakdown, one will find the results of their numerous tests where they have cut up and measured carcasses in the United States (US) for over 50 years. The results are quite amazing.

Carcass yield in numbers

If one compares the yield of saleable meat (proportion of the carcass that can be processed and sold to the customer) from a lean, bulky, beefy and well-muscled carcass to the yield from a flat, low-muscled and very fat carcass, there is a massive 35% differential. This is mainly due to huge amounts of fat and bone being produced, which is wastage.

Table 1: Comparison between the yield of different carcasses.

 Fat and bone (waste)Usable meat cuts (take-home meat)
Yield from a lean, choice 300lb (± 136kg) side of bulky, well-muscled, low-fat carcass15%85%
Yield from an average, choice 300lb side of medium-muscled, fat carcass30%70%
Yield from a very fat, choice 300lb side of low-muscled, flat, very fat carcass45%55%

There is a 35% (100 – 65%) differential in saleable meat between a lean, bulky, well-muscled carcass with low fat and that of a flat, low-muscled and very fat carcass.

Some sides of beef are fatter than others. As excess fat is removed during cutting, carcass fatness will affect how much take-home meat a side of beef will yield. The amount of fat and bone that must be trimmed (cutting loss) from a side has an influence on the quantity of saleable meat produced.

The need to transform meat classification

I spoke with numerous other influential beef industry role-players, including Prof Frikkie Neser, Dr Phillip Strydom and the late Dr Michael Bradfield, and they all agreed that this profit driver needs to be addressed for the benefit of the industry, as well as the beef breeds that produce more beef naturally.

However, we live in South Africa, an emerging market country that is rife with poverty, and not in a first-world country such as Australia or the United States. We are trying to feed a nation and to produce more beef sustainably and cost-effectively, and yet this important profit driver is simply ignored in South Africa.

As a beef industry, we need to transform ourselves and understand that we are not only trying to improve the quality of our beef so we can compete with global export markets, but we are also trying to feed our nation with large quantities of affordable beef.

Feedlots and meat processors

Where the quantity profit driver for feedlots and meat processers are concerned, it is common knowledge that feedlots discriminate against a few of our indigenous breeds by paying lower rates per kilogram. This problem can be solved by using the correct breed of bull and crossing it with these indigenous breeds to create a muscular slaughter animal.

We need to encourage breeding with the right animals that feed and convert grass and grain effectively, with good average daily gains and feed conversion ratios. These animals will finish with the right amount of fat cover, even if fed for longer. It costs the same to process a small carcass versus a large one.

In addition, feedlots and meat processors want animals with high slaughter percentages, excellent retail beef yields, eye-muscle areas and good conformation.

A possible simple solution

Our classification system has a conformation score of 1 to 5, which relates to the quantity profit driver. Without costing the industry a cent more, a flat, low-muscled carcass with a conformation score of 1 to 2 should be penalised at slaughter, and a round, bulky, beefy carcass with a score of 4 to 5 should be rewarded extra. This would immediately give an incentive to cattle producers to farm the correct breed of animal.

How does one determine the reward/penalty? Assume the carcass weight price is R50 per kilogram and a 10% penalty/reward is given.

For example:

  • Conformation score 1 – R5 (penalise).
  • Conformation score 2 – R2,50 (penalise).
  • Conformation score 4 + R2,50 (reward).
  • Conformation score 5 + R5 (reward).

As can be seen, this does not cost the industry a cent more and is easy to implement.

The large feedlots and meat processors would also benefit enormously from this change as they would automatically get more of the right type of animals, which would feed and convert maize and grass into meat more efficiently, in their feedlots. In addition, they would get higher slaughter percentages while adding large quantities of saleable meat when they cut the meat off the bone, adding more profit to their bottom line and feeding our nation cost effectively.

Even with a ‘disconnect’ between when a weaner is purchased and finally slaughtered, this change in the classification system would encourage both producers and feedlot buyers to procure these efficient, beefy calves.

Read more about the new grading system here.

Take-home message

We need to transform our industry to address the problem of poverty. It will allow us to feed our nation and produce more beef sustainably and cost-effectively by using the right breed of bull. There is a massive 35% differential between a lean, bulky, well-muscled, efficient carcass and a very fat, low muscled, flat carcass. For this reason, the classification system needs to change to encourage and give producers an incentive to produce more beef naturally, so that all industry role-players the South African consumer can benefit. – John Davenport

For more information, phone John Davenport on 083 454 3095.

silage competition