By Robert Harris

BIG differences in dressing specifications used by abattoirs make it impossible for some cattle finishers to calculate how well they are being paid.

Farmer evidence suggests high p/kg payments may be the result of severe dressing which disguises an often significantly poorer price for the whole beast, says National Beef Association chairman Robert Forster. According to some sources, in the worst case losses could exceed £50 an animal.

Killing-out%age reported by many companies over the past five years has dropped from 55% to 53%, adds Mr Forster. This also suggests excessive trimming, since conformation of specialist beef cattle has improved. “We have been told that some dressing specifications now include the removal of some of the flank.”

A centrally supervised national dressing standard should be adopted to remove such discrepancies, says Mr Forster. Until then, all finishers should weigh cattle before delivery, calculate the killing out percentage and challenge their buyer if they feel it is too low, he advises.

Weekly deadweight cattle prices from the Meat and Livestock Commission represent about 40% of abattoirs kill and are as accurate as possible, counters Peter Scott, secretary of the Federation of Fresh Meat Wholesalers.

But the figures are collated from five standards – two European ones and three national ones, he adds. Abattoirs use the one which most closely meets their customers needs. “If the NBA is not happy, let us have a discussion,” offers Mr Scott.

He is not aware of a reduction in killing-out percentage. “If we are told where this is happening, we could perhaps ask.”

A review of prime cattle price reporting will also help to achieve a fair price, Mr Forster adds. Farmers are worried that abattoirs use outdated weight-based averages from English and Welsh markets to set deadweight prices.

This helps buyers report attractive prices when some cattle of comparative quality would make more at market or other deadweight centres, says Mr Forster.

Auction marts should report liveweight prices based on estimated carcass classification, he maintains. An official, national deadweight/liveweight price conversion should also be introduced for cattle of similar quality, which could be published weekly.

Trials on quality based auction mart data are well underway in Scotland, and to a lesser extent in England and Wales, says Jane Connor of the Meat and Livestock Commission. “Ultimately, we would like to think it could be taken up nationally.”

However, some issues still need to be addressed, notably consistency of classification. A national price conversion, although costly, could eventually be introduced once such problems are overcome, she adds.