Dentition the new tool: USDA to use dental information to determine age of carcasses
Many cattlemen are selling cull cows this time of year, and given that revenue from the sale of late, open, aged and ornery cows make up 10-25 percent of gross income generated by a cow-calf operation, getting the most value for culls is paramount.
However, according to the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA), incorrect classification of carcasses costs the beef industry nearly $60 million annually for a whopping $275 per head.
Effective Dec. 18, 2017, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) is doing something about this ongoing problem. The agency has updated its beef standards with additional methods for classifying the maturity of carcasses. With dentition and documentation of actual age, USDA will more accurately be able to identify which carcasses are eligible for USDA quality grades to fully maximize the value of each animal.
“Carcasses today are graded based on indicators of skeletal maturity,” said Colin Woodall, NCBA vice president of government affairs. “These are physiological indicators of chronological age and include observation of the ossification of the bones and cartilages along the vertebral column of the split carcass.”
Currently, USDA graders use these indicators to classify carcasses into maturity groups designated A through E. A is the youngest, and cattle between 9 and 30 months of age are expected to be in this category. The problem is that these physiological indicators aren’t always fool-proof when aging an animal.
“The current indicators can sometimes be misleading due to premature skeletal ossification,” said Woodall. “For some cattle, premature ossification means they are incorrectly deemed older than 30 months of age and therefore ineligible for USDA quality grades. Dentition is a more precise method that avoids the potential maturity classification pitfalls caused by premature skeletal ossification. In addition, detailed production records can also be used to determine age. This has not been an option in the past, but many producers have accurate records on the age of their cattle.”
According to a letter submitted to the USDA from Dale Moore, American Farm Bureau Federation executive director of public policy; Barbara Glenn, CEO of the National Association State Departments of Agriculture; Kendal Frazier, NCBA CEO; and Philip M. Seng, U.S. Meat Export Federation president and CEO, the change will greatly reduce inaccurate age classifications.
Per the letter, “Most (> 95 percent) U.S. fed steers and heifers are less than 30 months of age based on dentition assessments at the time of slaughter and, according to USDA, cattle nine to 30 months of age are expected to produce A- maturity carcasses. However, due to premature skeletal ossification, many heifers and steers less than 30 months of age do not produce A-maturity carcasses as expected. According to fairly recent data, as many as 7.2 percent of carcasses produced by U.S. fed steers and heifers are classified as B-maturity or older based on USDA carcass maturity indicators. A significant portion of these cattle are known to be less than 30 months of age but because of premature skeletal ossification, the carcasses from these cattle are classified as B- maturity or greater and therefore are significantly discounted and undervalued.”
The letter requested for the USDA recognize grain-fed steers and heifer less than 30 months of age, verified by dentition or with documentation of age as verified by a USDA process verified program or USDA quality system assessment, be included in the A-maturity group, despite other skeletal evidences of maturity.
The group further explained in the letter, “Science ensures beef quality will not be compromised with this change. Old, tough carcasses will not be grouped with young, tender carcasses. Rather, this is a request to modernize the beef grading system to take into account the most recent research available and more accurately assign carcass maturity based on available data.”
The group added that there is a significant negative economic impact to the beef industry when cattle are incorrectly classified as B-maturity. A study of cattle moving through a packing facility over a 12-month period from May 2014 to April 2015 looked at 1 percent of 15,508,989 head of fed cattle. With an average carcass weight of 831 pounds and an average hardline discount of $33/cwt, the group said this represents a discount of $274.23/head or an annual industry loss of more than $42.5 million.
“Extrapolated to an annual fed cattle harvest of more than 21.7 million head, this represents an annual industry loss of more than $59.5 million,” said the organizations represented in the letter. “The number of carcasses impacted could be considered small by some, but the potential return to the beef industry for tender, juicy and flavorful beef is very significant.”
“Updates to the beef grading standards will benefit U.S. beef producers in every segment of our industry,” said Woodall. “Back in 2014, NCBA helped convene a working group composed of the cow-calf, feeder, and packing sectors to examine the issue of beef grading standards modernization. The group identified the change in maturity assessment procedures as an area for potential improvement. Research funded by the beef checkoff program provided scientific backing for NCBA’s position, and NCBA subsequently submitted a formal petition to USDA asking for the change in April of 2016.”
R-CALF USA’s Bill Bullard said the move makes sense, and matches the strategy used by FSIS to determine age as it relates to BSE.
The FSIS BSE rules from 2007 include the following:
“FSIS stated that if the establishment has accurate records that document the age of the cattle slaughtered in the facility, FSIS inspection program personnel would accept these records as verification of the age of the cattle. If the establishment does not have records that document the age of the cattle presented for slaughter, the Agency verifies age through dental examination. Under its age verification procedures, FSIS deems cattle to be 30 months of age and older if at least one of the second set of permanent incisors has erupted (the permanent incisors of cattle erupt from 24 through 30 months of age).”
“This is essentially adopting the same methodology (detention and/or records) for determining cattle less than 30 months of age that has been used for years under our BSE rules,” said Bullard, the group’s CEO.
“Many of our export partners already require dentition assessments to determine the age of cattle,” said Woodall. “Dentition has long been used in federally inspected plants, with oversight from USDA, for U.S. product destined for foreign markets. This change mainly impacts grading of beef destined for the domestic market. Benefits will accrue to producers, who will be eligible to receive USDA quality grades for more of their cattle. Ultimately this maximizes the value of each head.”
Dentition is used for grading in Australia and South Africa.
To read USDA’s complete document on updates standards for grades of carcass beef, go here.
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Outtagrass Cattle Co. cartoon by Jan Swan Wood for the March 6, 2021 edition of Tri-State Livestock News