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Cattle Ultrasound Yields Meat Quality Insights
By Chuck Dunlap
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- Ultrasound technologies are changing the way people look at cattle. Technological advances over the last decade have revolutionized how cattle producers and feedlot managers make decisions.
Ultrasound techniques are used to measure the fat/lean meat ratio in cattle before they are sold and sent to the meat processing plant. The ultrasound process measures four variables: ribeye area; backfat thickness; percent of intramuscular fat (also known as marbling); and rump fat.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has always taken these measures from a side of meat in the packing plant cooler, but now these accurate measurements can be made while the animal is still alive.
Lance Jefcoat, an animal science graduate student at Mississippi State University, performs ultrasound evaluations to help cattle producers make management decisions.
"Purebred producers can use ultrasound to select future stock," Jefcoat said. "Many carcass quality traits can be inherited, so ultrasound allows for the selection of yearling bulls and heifers with these superior traits. With cattle selected this way, it is a safe assumption that their offspring will share those same qualities.
"Feedlot managers have realized that ultrasound can actually save them money," Jefcoat added. "Steers can be measured in the feedlot to determine the best time for harvest. Ultrasound measurements of backfat thickness and marbling help to estimate the potential USDA quality and yield grades."
Purebred cattle producers have begun using ultrasound technology more than in the past, as well as have the conventional feedlot managers. Knowing the lean meat values of an animal greatly enhances that animal's value. For purebreds, their value is raised simply by having the data readily available.
Dr. Allen Williams, beef cattle specialist with MSU's Extension Service, continues to be a supporter of ultrasound techniques and said the field is just now becoming widely known and accepted.
"Equipment and technology have improved tremendously over the last few years," Williams said. "We now are using higher quality machines, and the software to interpret carcass values are vastly improved from what they used to be. Acceptance and use by national organizations such as the Angus and Hereford breed associations, have grown enormously as well."
Mississippi State recently held an animal ultrasound practitioner certification clinic for technicians in the field of cattle ultrasound. Once officially certified, the technicians are published in a national list and are readily available to travel to perform their services for individual producers and feedlots.
"Purebred producers and feedlot managers using ultrasound technology have a distinct advantage over those not using ultrasound," Williams added. "The ones who are currently not using it will eventually have to in order to keep up with the market."
There are two types of ultrasound certifications: the Animal Ultrasound Practitioners Association and the American Angus Association Centralized Ultrasound Processing. AUP technicians scan the cattle, collect the data and interpret the images themselves, while AAACUP technicians send the data to a centralized lab at Iowa State University to be interpreted.
Forty ultrasound practitioners took part in the MSU certification event, eight of which were taking the examinations for the first time. Technicians must be recertified every two years. The measurements taken by the ultrasound machine are then compared to the actual carcass measurements taken days later at the processing plant. If the ultrasound measurements are within 5 percent of the actual carcass measurements, the candidate is awarded certification.
Each technician is responsible for bringing to the certification clinic his or her own equipment, which normally cost about $30,000 per individual.
Craig Hays, a manager of the cattle ultrasound processing lab at Iowa State, has worked closely with the ultrasound industry for 10 years. Hays said the growth of the industry has been phenomenal since the concept began, especially within the last couple of years.
"The Angus Association is the largest breed association in the world," Hays said. "Acceptance and support by Angus of this project has slowly grown. Last year, we (the Iowa State lab) tested around 10,000 cattle. This year, we've already tested more than 35,000, and the year is not even half over yet. This industry just continues to grow."
Contact: Dr. Allen Williams, (662) 325-3515