Today’s consumers demand a growing list of verified attributes in the food they purchase. For the beef industry to meet those expectations and collect the rewards, each sector of the value chain must work together toward common goals, says Allen Williams. Dr. Williams is vice president of The Jacob Alliance and Livestock Management Consultants, a group that employs specialists in several aspects of beef production to focus on building supply chains for branded-beef programs.
Dr. Williams, whose specialties are genetics and reproduction, says the group works with seedstock breeders, commercial cow-calf producers, stockers, feeders, packers and retailers. Their service is to identify demand opportunities for beef with specific attributes, then develop production systems to meet that demand profitably. Those production systems involve genetic selection, specific management practices, application of technology such as ultrasound scanning and continuous evaluation of production efficiency and beef value.
“We started out working with clients producing for the better-known branded programs such as Coleman Natural Beef, CAB, U.S. Premium Beef and Ranchers’ Renaissance,” Dr. Williams says. Increasingly, though, producers are seeking involvement in smaller niche areas such as natural and grass-finished beef.
To supply these niche markets, and particularly grass-finished programs, Dr. Williams works with seedstock and commercial producers to identify genetic lines that “work at retail but also produce females that work on the ranch.” These grass-finished programs are not breed specific, but most use British breeds as the foundation, with crossbreeding strategies based on each operation’s location and environment.
Some utilize straight British crosses, while others use some Continental or Bos indicus genetics.
Regardless of breed type, Dr. Williams says the cows that work best in these systems are moderate-framed, thick-bodied, about 4 to 5 body-condition score, with sound feet and legs. He encourages producers to select for fertility, udder soundness, efficiency and longevity, along with car-cass traits such as retail yield, marbling and tenderness. Dr. Williams says his group combs the country for line-bred sires with proven genetics for efficient production of high-quality grass-finished beef and analyzes performance and carcass data to help direct genetic selection in client herds.
Scanning for dollars
A key tool in this process is ultrasound evaluation. “We conduct ultrasound scanning on all our clients’ cattle, usually twice, and use Beef Image Analysis software to apply the information in different ways,” Dr. Williams says. In addition to measuring backfat thickness, marbling and ribeye size, this system evaluates two other traits critical to determining an animal’s value — beef tenderness and a calf’s susceptibility to stress.
The BIA tenderness measurement, Dr. Williams explains, analyzes the alignment of muscle fibers in the ribeye. Several trials have demonstrated that this measurement, on live cattle, correlates closely with the Warner-Bratzler shear-force measurement on beef from the same animals. That correlation, around 85 percent, allows these programs to select cattle for beef tenderness and market beef that is guaranteed tender.
The stress measurement is another unique feature of this system. Dr. Williams says research has shown that during an extended period of stress, such as from sickness or environmental factors, cattle metabolize intramuscular fat in a measurable and predictable pattern. Based on that pattern, the BIA system provides a “stress score,” which Dr. Williams says is an excellent predictor of later health and performance.
Analysis of ultrasound images at weaning time allows producers to pre-qualify calves for branded programs. Calves with poor post-weaning stress scores, for example, are most likely to get sick later or perform poorly in the feedyard or in a grass-finishing program. This analysis gives the producer an opportunity to retain ownership of just those calves that are most likely to perform well and qualify for premiums in a branded-beef program. In the long term, though, the greatest opportunity is to identify the blood lines that produce stress-prone calves or less-tender carcasses, and to modify genetic selection accordingly. Dr. Williams says that in just a few years, he has seen some producers improve from a 20 percent acceptance rate to 80 percent, due to changes in genetics and management.
Dr. Williams believes ultrasound scanning and analysis for stress could have more widespread applications throughout the industry. Auctions or feedyards, for example, could potentially screen shipped calves to identify high-risk animals for selective treatment and prevention of respiratory disease.
The second ultrasound scan takes place 90 days or less prior to harvest and serves several purposes. It confirms carcass characteristics for final qualification, projects days to finish and helps stage cattle for delivery to customers. “We need to know what we have coming in various categories to meet customer demand,” he says.