Managing Gate to Plate

Robert Dineen
Rocky Mountain Natural Meats

Reprinted from Smoke Signals, volume XI, number 6, December 2000


Producing a quality meat product is important for bison producers if they want to prosper. The process starts with the management of the animals on the farm and continues until the meat is consumed. This article is a summary of Bob Dineen’s IBC 2000 presentation. He provides us with insights into how the bison industry can provide a quality product to the consumer by having the producers, processors and marketers working together.

Meat quality is influenced by a variety of factors. The biggest influences are the result of production practices at the ranch/feeding facility. Proper nutrition, animal handling and health management all contribute to the quality of the ultimate product. Consumer interest in the source of meat products along with versatility and convenience will increasingly playa role in product development.

In the past 15 years the bison industry has changed dramatically. One major change has been the development of a variety of carcass grading systems to insure quality and consistency of bison meat cuts. In the United States the grading systems used by most major marketers are implemented and administered as part of in-house quality control programs. In Canada there is a fee-based, industry-wide program administered by Ag Canada. While the criteria for all these systems differ somewhat, the goal is to provide a quality product that is consistent in the following:

Age and Size

Currently the vast majority of bison carcasses marketed as premium quality are intact males 20-30 months of age weighing 1000 to 1200 lbs. live. All major marketers in the US and Canada feel that this age bull provides the best eating quality and maximizes the pounds of carcass sold by the producer/feeder. This weight range will produce cuts with a weight variation of 15-16%, well within tolerances that are acceptable to the end user.

Fat Cover

Fat cover is the key indicator of a good feed program and proper management with the acceptable range being 1/4 inch or more. While excessive fat cover (over 1 inch) can be a problem and must be trimmed, lack of cover is a bigger problem in that the meat cuts will usually be low quality.

Fat Color

White fat is an indicator of a high quality diet and has the best acceptance at the consumer level. Yellow fat is the result of carotene in grass and other forages and is typically seen in animals off pasture. Extreme yellow color is usually seen in older animals of lower quality.

In order to produce a carcass meeting these criteria bulls are fed a 70% grain ration for a period of 120 to 150 days minimum. Without the proper management and feed ration the results can be economically disastrous. Problems include wide ranges in carcass weights (a range of 100 lbs. should be the goal), animals finishing at too old an age (30 months of age is the limit), large variances in fat cover and color. These scenarios can lead to 2 problems:

  • lower price to the producer and
  • more trim in the marketer's inventory.

A major role the marketer plays in producing a quality carcass is giving the grower feedback about their management program in order to influence the results. This is extremely important since the marketer has relatively little effect on quality after slaughter compared to how the animal is handled prior. Animals in a group that are not the quality expected create big supply problems down the line. By being pro-active and finding out what the market needs and prefers, the producer can assist the marketer by producing that type of product.

Another role in marketing is the opportunity to tell our (the Bison Industry) story to people who often have no idea that we even exist. This requires that we are all on the same page. Natural, wholesome, healthy and delicious are words we all use when describing Bison meat and we need to live up to them all. Production practices that are critical to putting a better product in the hands of our customers include:

Handling animals in a safe, low stress manner to lessen bruising and carcass damage.

Low stress production practices will produce better performance and better meat. Bruises trimmed on the kill floor cost both the producer in lower yield and marketer in poor quality, mis-shaped cuts that are in some cases unsaleable.

Timing the production cycle to the market.

The meat industry is a 365 day per year business. Customers expect to be able to purchase fresh product at any time. Since most producers calve April through June there is a large proportion of bulls ready for slaughter in late winter and early spring. This happens to be the slowest time of the year for sales. By running some bulls on grass their second summer we can spread out the production over a bigger portion of the year.

No sub-therapeutic antibiotic or growth hormone use.

Standard industry practice is to never use any of these products. The natural food industry is a growing sector of the retail food business and is a big part of many marketing companies' sales. Use of these products could jeopardize those sales. Additionally, since the majority of the animals utilized for meat are intact bulls, hormone use is unnecessary anyway.

Observing withdrawal dates on wormers and vaccines.

This goes hand in hand with the previous point. By reading and following the label on any vaccine, wormer or other product we produce a cleaner product.

Proper administration of these products to avoid injection site problems

Injection sites are a defect in the carcass that can be controlled easily by injecting vaccines and medications in the neck area only. Economic loss due to the abscesses and scarring caused by injection sites can be $20 per head or more. Producers who work hard at minimizing these problems while striving to produce the best carcasses possible will find better markets and better prices in the long run.

Ultimately, we are all beholden to the consumer. If they do not seek out and purchase Bison we will not have a market. To date we have been fortunate, but we must continue to strive to produce a better quality product. Market demands of convenience, and product versatility will put constraints on the industry in a variety of ways. New product development is expensive and time consuming. As new, more advanced, packaging technologies become available we will be forced to take the lead in order to maintain the quality image Bison now commands. The "Catch 22" in this scenario, however, is that in order to justify the enormous costs of state-of-the-art processing and packaging equipment we must have the required volume of product and corresponding sales. Yet without this technology our marketing efforts may be restricted.

The Future

Many challenges face us in the future. Certainly market development is chief among them. Without increased market share of red meat consumption we cannot expect to grow this business much less be able to offer the newest, most innovative products in state of the art packaging. The USDA’s adoption of HACCP (Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point) systems will certainly have a greater effect on producers in the future. Producers may have to keep a more accurate record of production practices. Third party verification of these practices may become necessary to some marketing programs. Other issues which will be of primary importance include:

Microbial control

Microbial control is the key issue in the meat industry today. Everyone in the distribution chain plays a part in food safety. Although contamination can happen anywhere in the system, we know that most microbial contamination happens at the slaughter facility and comes from both the inside and the outside of the carcass. Intestinal contents as well as mud and manure on the hide can lead to contamination. The meat industry is looking for ways to control or eliminate this problem and Bison are a bigger problem due to their heavy hair coat. Irradiation of meat products, carcass rinsing and possibly vaccinating the live animal are all potential solutions.

Increased shelf life

The search for a better way to package meat to increase shelf life is another major focus of the meat industry. Feeding vitamin E prior to slaughter has been shown to help both red meat color and retail shelf life. Developments in microbial control will have the biggest impact in this area, but modified atmosphere packaging, new types of plastics, advancements in temperature control and improved distribution systems will all playa role.

Product consistency

Product consistency can be increased through both selection and management. Some animals have the ability to pass on genetic traits for both overall muscling and tenderness. Research in this area may allow us to select for these traits without losing the qualities we already have. Advanced processing technologies could have a big impact in this area from video imaging analysis that sorts for tenderness to carcass rinsing via the circulatory system.

Promotions involving both the producer and marketer.

Market development costs money. Currently our industry associations have few resources for promotions, especially when compared to other red meat products. Without these resources our industry will not be able to keep pace with our competition. Promotional programs to increase meat sales must be funded by the producer as well as the marketing companies in order to be effective.

We must not lose sight of the great product we have to offer. In the future more and more consumers will be looking for safe, pure food sources. Huge questions remain about bio-engineered, mass produced and highly processed food products. Our small industry still has the opportunity to maintain our product in its (almost) original state - natural, clean and unique to this continent -American Bison.

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