BEEF producers across Australia are this month starting to receive more detailed feedback about the animal health performance of their slaughter cattle being direct consigned to a number of large processors across four states.
Since June, feedback sheets from about a dozen large beef processors have included data on condition of various offals on an individual animal basis, linked back to NLIS tag numbers and in some cases, management tags. NLIS will in fact become an important ‘enabler’ in the new project.
Some of the data is supplied direct from the processor involved, while for others, it will come via MLA’s Livestock Data Link (LDL) program.
Dr John Langbridge from Teys Australia, whose company in rolling-out data recording on animal health defects, said the first planning for an animal health reporting platform started four or five years ago.
“One of the key challenges in delivering the system was in making sure that the capture of the information is as accurate and consistent as possible, and that data capture is consistent from plant to plant, and from inspector to inspector,” he said.
Senior adoption manager with the Integrity Systems Company, Bec Austin, said part of the necessary development behind the animal health reporting project was the creation of a recording standard, so that offal condition was reported similarly from site to site at the post mortem level. In essence, it was important for producers to be able to compare reported results with some reliability from one processor to another, she said.
Teys Australia was one of the first to adopt the animal health reporting standard, and has now launched its own feedback reporting system. Teys is releasing the data to producers supplying the company’s Biloela, Lakes Creek and Beenleigh plants in Queensland, as well as Wagga in NSW and Naracoorte in South Australia.
A number of other plants are delivering similar data to suppliers using the same standards, but through Livestock Data Link (LDL). These include Northern Cooperative Meat Co, Casino; JBS Brooklyn (currently shut due to COVID infections); NH Foods’ Wingham (NSW) and Oakey Beef Exports (Qld).
Collectively, around two million head of slaughter cattle could be recorded under the system over the first 12 months.
Currently five offal conditions are being reported – the most commercially significant ones, that producers can do something about in their management. They include liver fluke, hydatids, liver abscess, pneumonia and nephritis (kidney damage). Some sites are recording intestinal condition and other parasites. This list may grow over time -for example in some areas, conditions like lumpy jaw, caused by certain grasses, may be included.
For producers receiving feedback on these conditions, they can then link through to information on the condition, what it means, and what can be done about it.
Typically, a plant providing animal health reporting will have an inspector stationed along the chain, using a touch-sensitive screen to record offal data on each set of offals as it passes.
What do animal health issues cost the industry each year?
Offals condemned due to disease or parasites are estimated to cost the beef industry many tens of millions of dollars each year alone.
But add to that the even more significant impact in compromised liveweight gain in a slaughter animals due to animal health challenge – directly affecting farmer income – and the cost to industry is enormous.
For example, about 60pc of slaughter animals in Queensland are found to carry hydatids. A study carried out by researcher Dr David Jenkins from Charles Sturt University was able to demonstrate that hydatids infection could cause a reduction in growth rate in cattle of about 13pc.
Based on that, a 13pc carcase weight loss across typical Queensland carcase weights represents between 16kg and 20kg of beef per animal. At current buying prices, that represents a value loss of around $100 a head.
“On that basis, the collective meat yield loss from hydatids’ impact on weightgain performance alone in Queensland cattle last year we think was around $100 million,” Teys Australia’s John Langbridge said.
“We think there can be some real moves out of this project that the entire supply chain can benefit from,” he said.
While the hydatid’s life cycle makes it a difficult parasite challenge to control, a vaccine is currently being trialled which shows promise to protect at-risk cattle.
Producer education will be an important part of the process to better understand and respond to the animal health issues documented in the new kill sheet reports.
COVID had slowed the rate of progress in this field, but plans are afoot to develop a suite of education products, including webinars and fact sheets, ISC’s Bec Austin said.
Extension programs will be tailored to suit, and target, specific animal health challenges in different beef producing regions, she said.
Ultimately the aim is to build awareness among producers where cattle are sub-optimal in terms of offal condition, allowing the producer to potentially do something about it.
Producers receiving their data via LDL will at some future time be able to benchmark their own performance against similar cattle from a broader group of suppliers, as well as how the producer’s own cattle are trending, over time, or across seasons, Ms Austin said.
LDL plans to contact a large number of cattle suppliers who do not currently access their data via the LDL system, to make them aware of the new opportunity under the animal health reporting module.
Optimising weightgain, carcase quality
In Teys’ case, performance data is supplied directly to suppliers, rather than through the LDL platform. Teys is in the early stages has provided the animal health data to feedlots and large pastoral companies – primarily because they already have veterinary advisers either on staff or as consultants, to help understand what the information means, and what might be done with animals if problems are found. Other Teys livestock suppliers are progressively being added across Australia.
Prior to this, private feedlot vets have occasionally visited abattoirs to do their own lung condition scoring, for example, to monitor rates of respiratory disease in fed cattle.
“What the program does is provide a more general post-mortem report on animal heath on every animal processed,” John Langbridge said.
“We see this as part of our value-offering to our producer suppliers,” he said. “If we can present the data in a way that is meaningful and easy to understand, producers are more likely to respond and make changes to production systems, in areas like optimising weightgain or carcase quality. There are great opportunities in this.”
In addition to the health defect information, each Teys feedback sheet will include estimated meat yield and carcase weight, along with MSA grading data, allowing producers to make their own judgements on weightgain, carcase weight and other carcase performance data against health status.
Initially, Teys plans to introduce information sheets on its websites on the top five animal health impacts at each of its processing sites across Australia, and what can be done to reduce or prevent them. The five are likely to vary considerably from site to site, Dr Langbridge said.
He said there had been some good research by Cara Wilson, David Jenkins, David Jordan and others pointing to the effects of various animal health conditions on carcase yield and meat quality.
In Teys’ case, the company is advising livestock suppliers now starting to receive animal health reporting information to talk to their cattle buyers if there were aspects they did not understand, or to consult their local veterinarian.
Dr Langbridge said an important point was that while livestock may look healthy to the eye, there may still be underlying sub-clinical signs of parasites and other disease impacting their performance.
He said the extensive livestock industries knew much less about animal health performance than the intensively-managed pork and poultry industries, which tended to be corporate-managed. Some of these had been monitoring slaughter animals for animal health status for years.
“So beef is really playing catch-up in this field,” he said. “The fragmented nature of the industry when compared with chicken or pork has made it more challenging.”
Different animal health challenges in different regions
In Teys case, it was already becoming evident that there were differences from state to state and region to region in animal health reporting results, but the extent was still being determined.
The top five or ten conditions may vary from processing site to site, depending on where the cattle were drawn from, he said.
“But we will be able to work out, pretty quickly, what the meat yield and quality affect is from various diseases and parasites.”
For example while liver abscess was more commonly associated with feedlot cattle on high energy rations, it could also be found in cattle being supplemented off grass, he said.
“And does that have any impact on the MSA outcome? Does liver abscess change an animal’s MSA index value, for example? We are all going to learn as we go along this path. But the more we can show an increase in value in a disease or parasite-free animal, the more the farmer is incentivised to do something about it.”
Dr Langbridge said the animal that had a parasite or disease infection, and the one that didn’t, cost Teys exactly the same amount to process.
While producers are not currently paid on offal performance, the fact that carcase weight could be impacted by a disease or parasite could motivate producers to seek solutions, if their cattle are affected, he said.
“Growing the value of the carcase will be a win-win – the producer will get rewarded for heavier carcases, for the same feed input; and the processor will harvest more beef, for the same processing cost.”
Over time, Teys hoped to improve the presentation of the animal health performance data to suppliers.
“It might get to a point where we could estimate in dollar terms what each detected disease cost the potential meat yield from each animal,” Dr Langbridge said.
“If, for example, a hydatid vaccine comes onto the market, we could illustrate how much bigger a producer’s cheque for a consignment of cattle might have been, if the projected weight loss caused by hydatid infection had been eliminated through vaccination. It would allow people to evaluate the cost-benefit of animal heath treatments.”
Perceptions about the value of wild dog control, for example, could also change as a result of animal health reporting.
“Currently wild dog impact is valued on the basis of calf and lamb loss through predation. But include the transmission of hydatids through dogs into that equation, and the impact on beef production gets greatly amplified,” he said.
“If Australia is to grow the value of agriculture by $100 million by 2030 – as the government aspires to – it won’t come from growing our beef herd to 30 million head. In my opinion it will come through doing more with what we have – growing the value of the individual animal right through the chain – through projects like this,” Dr Langbridge said.
“We firmly believe that if we can get this right, then everybody wins.”