NEXT year is shaping up to be an important one for technology progress in analysing beef carcases for meat yield.
While the industry has made great strides in objectively assessing carcases for meat quality traits – with five or six technologies now accredited for use in assessing different beef traits including marbling, fat and meat colour and fat depth – yield assessment has been much slower to materialise.
In November 2016, the then MLA managing director Richard Norton surprised many stakeholders by boldly declaring that DEXA X-ray carcase yield assessment technology would be installed in up to 90 AusMeat accredited abattoirs across the country.
The $150 million project would be funded by industry under a loan taken out by MLA, stakeholders were told, with first equipment installations expected to take place in 2017.
Dual Energy X-ray Absorptiometry (DEXA) technology would pave the way for scientific measurement of saleable meat yield, future value-based marketing and industry-wide productivity gains through processing automation, genetic improvement in livestock and data-based on-farm decision making. And ‘universal’ adoption of the technology was the only way to capture the potential of the data it would generate to benefit all of industry, Richard Norton said.
Six years later, not a single DEXA unit, nor any other form of ‘commercial’ objective yield assessment, is in commercial operation* in the Australian beef industry. (*Teys Australia continues to trial E+V carcase scanning systems at Rockhampton and Wagga, but confirmed that this is not yet in commercial use).
There are a host of reasons why that 2016 surprise pronouncement did not proceed as Mr Norton envisioned.
Key to this will be the start of a new project early next year at Teys’ Lakes Creek abattoir near Rockhampton, led by Dr Honor Calnan. The project will benchmark DEXA, as well as a bevy of other technologies capable of analysing carcase meat/fat/bone percentage – against the ‘gold standard’ for carcase yield assessment, CT scanning.
Subject to completing a few regulatory and licensing hurdles, mobile CT scanning equipment will be installed at Lakes Creek early next year. CT scanning is widely used in human health, and is seen in baggage security screening systems at airports around the world. As described in more detail below, it is now also used in the lamb industry, acting as the reference standard for the whole carcase lean pc, fat pc, and bone pc traits.
So if they are so accurate, why not just install CT scanners in beef plants across Australia? There are a number of reasons, just two of which are their high cost, and the challenges and cost in retro-fitting the bulky systems into already crowded abattoir workspaces, and adapting CT systems to a hostile abattoir environment. However work has started on adapting CT to provide the imagery required for boning automation.
In addition to DEXA, which is already installed at Lakes Creek for research purposes, another three, and potentially four carcase yield technologies will be benchmarked against CT scanning in research work next year.
Since Richard Norton made his bold pronouncement in 2016, new technologies have continued to evolve rapidly, thanks in large part to ALMTech research collaboration with Australian processing plants, presenting a number of genuine alternatives to DEXA, depending on each application.
Among the technologies lining-up against CT scanning in trials early next year will be:
- The whole-carcase E+V scanning system, based on 3D surface imaging technology (pictured at top of page). European-manufacturer E+V already has a separate camera system used for quality grading (meat and fat colour, fat depth and marbling), in commercial use, including in a number of beef plants in Australia.
- A microwave-based carcase assessment system that measures tissue depth, which will be ‘trained’ to predict carcase yield. It is described as being at the ‘research/pre-commercial prototype’ stage. This piece of equipment is currently being tested at the WAMMCO sheep plant in Western Australia, analysing GR tissue (fat) depth with a view to accreditation for this trait on lamb.
- Another 3D surface-imaging technology developed by the University of Technology in Sydney.
- The existing Beef DEXA system, already installed for trial work at Lakes Creek. The evidence so far demonstrates that DEXA is certainly the most accurate at predicting whole carcase yield, but its other advantage is that it can also provide accurate guidance for robotic cutting equipment, now starting to appear in lamb processing. However, not all processors seeking to adopt yield assessment technologies are looking to invest in automated cutting robots.
- A fifth candidate, described below, will be trialled against CT later.
In the Lakes Creek trials early next year, all the above technologies will be measured for their ability to predict whole carcase bone, fat and meat percentage, against the ‘gold standard’ CT scanner.
The trials will cover a wide range of carcase weights, breed types and levels of finish, focussing in the first instance on heavier grainfed carcases.
Degree of accuracy
Beef Central asked Prof Gardner what degree of accuracy would be considered acceptable in each system’s lean meat yield prediction ability.
“If we were talking about CT percentage units (such as the fat percentage measured in a carcase by CT scanner), and how well these devices predict it, for the Beef DEXA system, we’d think a fat percentage of plus-or-minus 1.5 percentage units would be a desired goal,” he said.
“So on a carcase with a true lean meat yield of say, 65pc, as measured by CT, we’d want to see DEXA predict, two-thirds of the time, within a range from 63.5pc and 66.5pc.”
Other technologies are not expected to predict yield with this degree of accuracy, but may still prove to be accurate enough for commercial purposes.
DEXA now superseded?
Asked whether DEXA had now been superseded by more recent technologies since the original 2016 industry proclamation, Prof Gardner said “not necessarily.”
“Look at developments in lamb. By the time the last round of DEXA systems go into lamb plants in coming months, about half of all lambs slaughtered in Australia will be DEXA-scanned. That’s not to say there isn’t still work to be done with DEXA in lamb – we still need to see more yield feedback to more producers,” he said.
“But it has had really good traction in lamb, and to this point, only about half of the DEXA scanners in use in lamb plants are being employed to drive robots.”
So why so many options? Why not just pick one winner from the candidates?
In essence, different systems may suit different processor users’ specific requirements, Prof Gardner said. There were a range of issues about installing the bulky DEXA systems in already crowded beef plants, including protecting staff against Xray exposure.
“But part of the logic around DEXA was that it can also drive automation in robotic cutting systems, as well as predict yield,” he said.
“And that logic holds up for beef as well. For those plants that intend to adopt automated cutting systems, as part of the business case, this definitely helps to justify the cost and considerable plant modification necessary to accommodate DEXA systems.”
In other processing plants where automation and robotic cutting are not a consideration, and particularly where processing throughput is less, then the other cheaper, and much less intrusive systems may come into play.
“Then, it comes down to how accurate these other options prove to be – compared with DEXA,” Prof Gardner said.
“We now think we have a good handle on DEXA performance, but this next six months-worth of work will really focus on just how good, in relative terms, these other devices are, in comparison.”
The basic requirement was not only good, reasonably accurate yield information for feedback to producers and others, but also to enable in-plant decisions that make money for the operator – essentially, whether a carcase should be fabricated differently, because of what’s been measured within it.
“As the economics around those opportunities develop and are better understood, the precision and accuracy of these yield measurements will start to matter more and more,” Prof Gardner said. “The better you can measure it, the more of that ‘available cash’ the user can tap into.”
“It’s something that the lamb industry is making good gains on, already, given how much further advanced it is in this space. The in-plant decision-making and carcase sortation is already being tackled, at a number of lamb sites.”
Prof Gardner agreed that the beef industry could be greatly encouraged by what was already happening in the lamb sector.
Beef lags behind lamb
So why has beef lagged behind lamb in DEXA adoption?
“A few things,” he said. “Lamb has had the yield measurement on tap, and has been able to mature, as an industry, in utilising that measurement more quickly. Secondly, in beef, we really need to get this portable CT scanner in place to enable final calibration and comparison of these technologies.
“Due to regulatory, licensing and other factors, it has been tough in getting this piece of equipment installed. And simply constructing it during COVID, with the obvious supply chain disruptions, has made it tricky, and slowed-down the process. We’ve kept chipping away at it, but COVID made the process more cumbersome. But it’s true we have been delayed well behind what we originally had hoped to do.”
The other big challenge with DEXA was the sheer cost involved in sacrificing expensive beef carcases for research. A lamb carcase weighs one-twentieth of a beef carcase, and it is relatively inexpensive to buy 500 lamb bodies to enable full calibration of the lamb DEXA system. In the current meat market conditions, several hundred beef carcases represented an enormous cost, Prof Gardner said.
“As a result, the solution was to bring the CT scanner to the plant, not the beef to the CT scanner,” he said.
So six or seven months from now, does the beef industry have a set of performance data from the four candidate technologies versus CT in order to make sound investment decisions? Beef Central asked.
“I’m optimistic that that will be the case,” Prof Gardner said.
“But the business case around how each processor might use the information needs to develop. Plants need to first see the opportunity, and then consider how to implement.”
He says the research work taking place next year will provide clarification over the side-by-side accuracies of a number of technologies targeting the yield space.
“That will really help to focus investment in this area going forward.”
Other technologies also in the pipeline
While the US and Japanese beef industries have used a basic manual measurement of yield (based on eye muscle area, fat depth and carcase weight) for decades, the only region of the world so far venturing into technology-based beef carcase yield assessment is Europe.
Frontmatec’s BCC3 whole-carcase surface-imaging camera is already in commercial use for yield assessment in Ireland. The Frontmatec unit’s multiple cameras capture countless images to build up a 3D image of the carcase, and from that, yield predictions are drawn.
Under separate work to follow the upcoming analysis of the four previously-mentioned technologies against CT yield measurements in Rockhampton, Frontmatec’s BCC3 will also be compared against CT.
“One of the real strengths we’ve found in the use of DEXA in lamb is that it is somewhat breed agnostic,” Prof Gardner said. “It just sees tissue, and effectively quantifies what’s there. It’s not looking for certain shapes that may be associated with certain breed types, that a surface-imaging camera might be influenced by. In a diverse data set across different types of carcases, we’d expect that to show out in results,” he said.
Funding for project work due to wind-up
With funding support for the industry’s current four-year ALMTech Advanced Livestock Measurement Technologies project due to draw to a close by the middle of next year, Beef Central asked Prof Gardner whether there was a risk of progress stalling in the yield assessment work.
“We have done some assessments of where we expect the work to be up to by the middle of next year,” he said, “and in particular the gaps that we can see, going forward.”
Those results have been signalled back to Meat & Livestock Australia, and the Australian Meat Processor Corporation – both of which have supported the project financially, along with the Federal Government, through the Rural Research for Profit facility.
“In the first instance we are looking at large funding opportunities to attract external cash that would enable us to sustain the momentum. But there’s probably not a lot around at the moment,” Prof Gardner said.
“Both MLA and AMPC are already looking at what the investment future looks like for objective carcase measurement, beyond the ALMTech life-cycle, which finishes next June. There are clearly areas that would require ongoing investment, in our opinion.”
“We, as a team, would love to stay committed, and continue work on a lot of these important areas. The other crucial point is that we are just now starting to support the roll-out of various meat quality and yield assessment technologies across meat businesses,” he said.
“And very much, the next phase is to continue that adoption support, but also help supply chains act upon the information gathered from the technologies. It’s one thing having all these fancy measurement devices, but that means little if the end-user is not making better decisions or offering feedback or premiums from the information that evolves from them.”
Australian Meat Processor Corporation chief executive Chris Taylor said the accurate measurement of carcase attributes was important for maximising the value of each carcase, whether it be through measuring eating quality characteristics to meet consumer demands, to assist in automation, or to optimise production scheduling through matching individual carcases to market specifications.
“It is pleasing to see technologies such as the MEQ Probe, an AMPC-supported investment that was born out of ALMTech, arriving at commercialisation stage after several years of investment. And there is plenty more activity in the pipeline, from AI-driven automated beef scribing to beef striploin fat trimming – all activities driven by objective measurement technologies.
We are proud to be leading the way in research, development, and adoption of carcase measurement technologies, including through initiatives such as ALMTech, and we look forward to working with our research partners to unlock future opportunities.”
Why yield-based beef carcase assessment systems?
The key benefits seen in adopting an objective yield-based beef carcase assessment system are:
- Opportunity to provide feedback to producers, and ultimately develop performance-based payment systems including a yield component to encourage cattle selection for higher yield
- Feedback to genetic databases such as BreedPlan, to allow seedstock producers to better select for higher yielding cattle
- Providing processors with the opportunity to make better sortation decisions among carcases
- Delivering the ability to provide retailers and other meat customers with accurate predictions of what’s coming in terms of beef supply, allowing supply chains to better manage the logistics of product flow in their supply chains.
- And one for the future – accurate quantification of protein produced, ensuring future efficiency claims for the livestock sector are transparent. This will be particularly important as legislation around carbon restrictions come into play.