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How can cameras improve meat yield from beef cattle?

It's no secret that New Zealand's beef industry is one of its most iconic. Indeed, the nation was home to some 3.7 million beef cattle as of 30 June 2012, according to Statistics New Zealand – but could the industry be about to undergo a revolutionary change? British farmers are pioneering a new technique that could alter the face of beef farming for years to come. 

Specialist cameras are now being installed at selected abattoirs across Britain, which can allow farmers to receive information about both the volume and quality of a range of different cuts of meat on cows. This could potentially aid them in choosing the most suitable animals for breeding. 

Cows on film

According to an article published in the country's Telegraph newspaper, Video Image Analysis (VIA) takes high-quality, three-dimensional pictures of cattle carcasses that have been cut in two. This can deliver an unerringly accurate prediction of both what the meat yield might be, as well as fat content. As if that capability is not hi-tech enough, how about this: it may even be able to predict shelf-life.

A new hi-tech camera system can determine quality and volume of any given cow's meat.
A new hi-tech camera system can determine quality and volume of any given cow's meat.

VIA could put an end to the centuries-old practice of analysing cattle simply by sight, where the shape of the animal would usually suffice when it came to grading. Indeed, the old industry payment system favoured cattle with larger back ends, as it was these which would traditionally command the most money when it came to market.

"You can select cows which have more meat in certain areas. Sirloin is a very high value cut, brisket or silverside are less valuable. Because of demand, we want animals with a lot of sirloin, high value meat," said Dr Mary Vickers, senior beef and sheep scientist at Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board: Beef and Lamb.

VIA could put an end to the centuries-old practice of analysing cattle simply by sight, where the shape of the animal would usually suffice when it came to grading.

Lights, camera … sirloin?

It is though that, by employing VIA, there is a possibility that it may be able to determine which individual animals will produce the highest quality of meat. Sirloin, for example, is obviously a valuable cut of meat, and by using VIA, it may even be conceivable that farmers could breed longer-bodied cattle – deliver higher quantities of the prized cut.

It's not just size and quality of meat that VIA can determine. Feed efficiency is another attribute important with regards to the volume of meat produced, as well individual cattles' overall health and how resistant to diseases they might be. 

"From this data, breeding values for meat quality could be produced, thereby providing farmers with the tools to enable permanent, cumulative and cost-effective improvements of the underlying quality of carcasses," said a spokesman Defra's Farm Animal Genetic Resources Committee, about the technology. The same breakthrough could potentially be used in sheep farming, too.

Video technology may even help certain cattle be chosen for selective breeding.