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Improving beef: Transportation bruising becomes next big BQA task

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

When the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association released the latest Beef Quality Audit at their mid-year meeting in July, there was a lot of good news for the cattle industry. Rob Eirich, the beef quality assurance (BQA) coordinator in Nebraska, shared some of those findings from the 2016 audit during the recent open house at the University of Nebraska Gudmundsen Sandhills Laboratory in Whitman, Neb.

Making progress

“In the early 80s, everyone had a good idea why the BQA program was started,” he explained to producers. “Injection sites were a major issue back then.”

“One of every four carcasses going down the rail had some type of injection site lesion, residue or bruise,” he continued. “With 25 percent of the fed cattle having a lesion, we had a problem.”

Through better cattle management practices, that has all changed. Eirich says 99.5 percent of fed cattle carcasses going down the rail showed no evidence of injection site issues.

“That was a significant improvement for us, just by changing one practice,” he said.

New challenges

Despite that, Eirich said there are a few new hurdles to overcome in the coming years. The biggest could possibly come in a new design for cattle pots.

“We have found some issues with transportation,” Eirich shared.

The audit shows that 96.8 percent of the fed cattle coming off trucks at packing plants had perfect mobility scores and showed no lameness.

“However, 71 percent of those cattle did show minor bruises when they were looked at on the rail,” he adds.

A minor bruise is defined as a bruise that requires the loss of less than one pound of product or carcass weight when it is removed. 

“It had to be identified as a bruise that occurred in the last 30 days,” Eirich explained. “After 30 days, we can’t identify where that bruise occurred.”

Although one pound may not seem like much, it adds up, he emphasized.

“Cattle pots and the way they are built have not changed in 30 years,” Eirich said. “In the meantime, our cattle size and frame size have gotten bigger.”

He explained, “As cattle are going down into the belly of the cattle pot, they are hitting their loins and tail heads in the ruts on the top ramp that is folded up. As they are going down, there is not enough space there.”

“Some of the bruising may also be from cattle loading on the truck and jamming in there and in the alleyway. It might also be caused by simple things like braking during trucking. If they have a brake that is too quick and the cattle all shift, it could cause bruising,” he said.

Optimum sizes

Eirich said the industry is also going to have to address carcass weight and optimum size.

“Carcass weights are increasing in size,” he said. “We see more carcasses that are 950 pounds and above than we have seen in the past. Our yields are continually growing. It is a slight increase over time, but we have to question, how big is too big, and what is the optimum size?”

“As we make more money on the live market, that market is determining that we want to feed heavier cattle,” he continued. “We are seeing more yield grade fours and fives than we have in the past, which is a discount. The industry is focused on the 850- to 900-pound range for carcass weights, but more and more carcasses are weighing over 950 pounds.”

The problem lies within the market itself. In a live-based market, producers want to sell more pounds, which means heavier live-weight cattle, with heavier carcasses and more condition on those carcasses.

“Yield grades keep shifting in that direction,” Eirich explained. “Heavier carcasses may also produce heavier-muscled cattle. The question is, do consumers want a 15-inch ribeye on their plate?”

Consumer preference

“With a larger the ribeye area, to get the portions the food service and retailers want, the bigger the loin eye, the thinner it must be cut,” he said.

“Would we rather have a thin-cut or a thick-cut steak? The thinner the steak, the easier it is to overcook,” he continued. “We have to think about uniform size, how big a carcass is too big and how much muscle is too much muscle.”

The audit shows 71 percent of all fed carcasses are choice or above. The remaining 29 percent are high selects, Eirich said.

He noted, “I think we will continue to get some quality breaks into choice.”

Eating satisfaction was also on the list for future industry concerns.

“It is a legitimate concern,” he said. “If someone doesn’t believe eating satisfaction drives our industry and our demand, they are wrong.”

“The wholesale and retail markets are the ones putting our product on the consumers’ plates. They have to have that eating satisfaction every time,” he said.

Other concerns

Consumers are also becoming more and more interested in where and how the beef they eat is raised.

“Retailers and consumers don’t understand what BQA is,” Eirich stated. “They don’t understand the improvements we have done to make our product safe for them, so we need to continue to educate them when we have an opportunity.”

Transparency is also important. Consumers have more access to information than ever before through social media, Eirich said.

“We have to be where the consumers are and willing to have that conversation with them,” he emphasized

Food safety is critical. 

“As an industry, we must continually work on food safety and not let our guard down,” Eirich told producers. “It will help us determine how we can continue to be sustainable in our industry.”

“We have to make sure everything we do from conception to the dinner plate does not affect the safety of the product going to our consumers,” he commented. “We need to remember that only two percent of our population is actually in production agriculture, while 98 percent of U.S. consumers have not been involved in production agriculture.”

Gayle Smith is a correspondent of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to

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