Ian Wheal explores how creating a ‘digital twin’ for cattle can produce leaner beef with less environmental impacts

With increasing consumer demand for leaner meat with lower environmental impacts, it will be good news to the agri-food industry that a recent year-long study, Field2Yield, has concluded that this can be achieved; while simultaneously reducing waste and cost within the food chain.

Consumers, retailers and processors do not want excess fat on their beef and it is estimated that it takes four times the feed-energy to put on a kilogram of fat compared to a kilogram of muscle. So, producing ‘fat’ cattle costs more in feed than is gained in the sale price. However, estimating the point of ‘peak profit’ is very hit and miss.

The big challenge for the livestock food chain is that the industry is still very subjective and much cattle assessment is still done ‘by eye’ to gauge the market readiness of an animal, with few farmers routinely weighing their animals on farm.

Reducing greenhouse gas emissions
The Field2Yield study aimed to provide a better scientific understanding of the factors that impact carcass quality. Over six years of real-world farm records were analysed to determine improved metrics for benchmarking cattle performance.

One outstanding finding was achieved using growth curves. This analysis revealed that healthy lower weight cattle, finished rapidly, are more profitable and produce less emissions of the greenhouse gas methane over their lifetimes. This is because the amount of feed an animal consumes is directly proportional to its weight and also to the amount of methane it produces.

So, although two animals may be the same weight at slaughter, if one was heavier when young it would have consumed more food and produced more methane during its lifetime than a lighter-weight animal. Therefore, by selecting lighter animals that gain weight rapidly during finishing, a farmer can increase efficiencies and reduce emissions.

Improving the quality of dairy beef
The study also revealed that genetics played a major role; with some bull/cow combinations consistently producing significantly better performing calves.

By informing herd breeding and buying decisions, this knowledge could reduce waste, particularly in the dairy industry where there are moves to ensure a higher proportion of male calves are suitable for beef.

Being able to bring an animal to market sooner reduces the cost of production and also means the meat will be leaner, more tender and the fat whiter, whi

Improving the eating experience
Today’s consumer expects tailored experiences, and food has become a big part of this. Research has shown that if a customer has a bad eating experience, it can be three months before they make a repeat purchase.

Supermarkets now sell two-thirds of the beef sold in the UK and each outlet has detailed knowledge of the customer preferences. Market research has shown that consumers want tender, juicy, tasty meat that is not too fatty.

However, communicating these preferences back through the value chain to the producers is problematic. The chain is fragmented and the method for grading and valuing carcasses – the 40-year old EUROP grid for conformation and a numeric assessment for fatness – is out of touch with the most recent consumer trends.

Additionally, objectivity is the element that is lacking in the livestock industry with classifiers at abattoirs all assessing animals slightly differently.

Creating a ‘digital twin’
So, the Field2Yield study also looked at how to develop metrics that would not only help farmers to accurately predict an animal’s point of peak profit but also ensure that the carcass would consistently meet processor and retailer specifications.

Historical data along with additional rump width, length, hip, height and body length measurements were analysed in the study. This information can then be used to develop models with multiple data points that would allow the animal specifications to be digitised and farmers to benchmark their performance against a new industry standard.

By digitising livestock production, farmers would be able to access the insights they need to deliver the right product for retailers’ customers and provide the evidence of quality and a track-record of performance.

For the processors and retailers, the creation of an online market place would enable them to source the meat that meet their specifications 12from multiple producers who can provide evidence of good livestock management, high welfare and environmental credentials.

Linking up the supply chain is key; ensuring greater efficiency and transparency at all stages, to get more value for the farmer, more consistency for the processor and deliver the retailer and consumer the leaner, more emissions-friendly meat they are demanding.

Ian Wheal is founder and CEO Breedr, which turns real-world livestock data into actionable insights, improving farmer profit and promoting sustainable meat production. Benefitting from Ian’s experience of growing up on a family farm, and underpinned by rigorous science, the platform supports the entire livestock supply chain in trading smarter, acting faster and growing better animals. Breedr is working with farmers, processors, partners and retailers across the UK and USA.