Carcass quality must rise to meet market demands

Beef and lamb producers appear to be heeding the message that quality counts, with English slaughterers reporting increased proportions of both sheep and cattle meeting prefered specifications, according to EBLEX.

On the beef front, 46% of all carcasses graded R4L or better, compared with 41% in 2005, explains MLC meat scientist Kim Matthews. “And further analysis reveals year-on-year improvements in both leanness and conformaton of all three classes of stock – steers, heifers and young bulls – meaning this is the best all-round English beef carcass quality in recent years.”

The greatest annual progress was recorded in both heifer and young bull carcass quality, with heifers showing noticeable improvements in leanness and conformation. “Overall, 42% of heifers classified as R4L or better in 2006 compared with 36% in 2005. On fat class, heifers improved by 4%, with 80% grading 4L or leaner, while conformation also gained 4% on the year before, with 52% making an R or better grade.”

Most noticeably, for the first time in recent years, the proportion of carcasses meeting the R or better target for conformation topped 50%, suggesting breeding improvements are now having a positive effect alongside improved cattle management which has improved fat class grading, says Dr Matthews.

Market specification


  • Fewer fat carcasses

  • More improvement needed

  • Large regional variation

But while these improvements are worthy of mention, there is a still a large proportion of carcasses which fail to meet market specification. “More than 45% of carcasses still lack conformation and more than half fail to meet both the preferred conformation and leanness targets. There is clearly considerable room for improvement in responding to the demands of the modern beef market.”

Regionally, the Midlands was the best performer, with 60% of carcasses meeting the R4L or better specification. “This clearly shows that achieving a much higher overall carcass quality is possible given sufficient determination and incentive.”

And while many in the south west believe they are poorly paid compared to other parts of the country, their failure to meet market specification may explain lower prices paid in the region. Just 39.8% of beef carcasses meeting the R4L or better specification.

Further improvement

Meanwhile lamb producers have also shown further improvement, with 57% meeting the preferred target market specification. “Both old and new season lambs recorded figures of more than 55% meeting specification, with 58% of new season lambs and 56% of old season lambs classifying R3L or better.

The biggest improvement came in fat class, with 73% classifying 3L or leaner, a clear improvement on the 70% recorded in 2005. “Much of this was due to an extremely welcome increase in the proportion of old season lambs finished in the target fat classes, up 7% to 75% last year.”

This rise in the number classifying in target fat class is almost certainly a reflection of improved marketing, with fewer animals retained beyond the ideal slaughter weight and condition. “This is supported by the reduction in average carcass weight, from 20.1kg in 2005 to 19.6kg in 2006.”

However, as in the beef sector, there is still a large proportion of animals failing to meet specification. More than 25% of carcasses were too fat and 19% were poor conformation, adds Dr Matthews.