Three emerging technologies are shaping as potential game changers for Australian lamb industry efforts to improve the measurement of lean meat yield and key quality traits, the LambEx 2014 conference was told last week.
Outlining why better measurement technologies are needed, Murdoch University associate professor Graham Gardner said the Australian lamb industry had taken massive steps forward in the past seven years in understanding the importance of lean meat yield and eating quality, driven by research conducted by the Sheep CRC.
However, existing technologies were very poor at providing accurate measurements of lean meat yield and the key eating quality trait of intramuscular fat in lamb.
While the industry has long been selecting for lean meat yield, it had only been since the inception of MSA for sheep meat in 2007 that a real focus on production to optimise eating quality had emerged.
There have also been calls for MSA for sheep to move beyond a simple MSA or non-MSA pathway and to incorporate better differentiation of cuts to enable MLA lamb to be classified as MSA 3, 4 or 5 star, as MSA for beef allows.
The big barrier to this being achieved, however, is a lack of the required technology to enable rapid and cost-effective measurement of eating quality traits in lamb. Only when these measurements are available can the MSA system evolve in this way, Assoc Prof Gardner said.
A second challenge for researchers is to develop a more accurate measurement of lean meat yield. Producers require market signals to supply high yielding lambs, but won’t receive these signals until measurement technologies are in place to accurately measure lean meat yield.
The main method used across industry to determine lean meat yield is based on manual palpation of the GR site to estimate fat score. However, when used in conjunction with carcase weight, this describes less than 20pc of the variation in lean meat yield, a method that is far too imprecise for processors to make accurate carcase sorting decisions.
A third challenge in this area is the fact that lean meat yield and traits which determine eating quality are “antagonistic” – selecting for one can make the other worse.
As a result, Assoc Prof Gardner said carefully constructed selection indices are needed, along with payment systems that reward producers for taking a balanced approach to optimising lean meat yield while also maintaining eating quality.
“To enable this, measurement technologies to enhance the prediction of eating quality for lean meat yield are not only essential, but will need to be used simultaneously.”
For this reason considerable investment from Meat & Livestock Australia, the Australian Meat Processing Corporation and the Sheep CRC was being directed towards research and development of objective carcase measurement technologies and linked information systems that predict carcase value and will enable carcase sorting and value determination.
“Clearly we need measurements and better measurements to do this job, and that is why in the next phase of the Sheep CRC the extensions will have projects on testing and further developing these technologies,” Assoc Prof Gardner told the conference.
Three devices were currently showing strong promise in particular for their ability to provide more accurate measurements, Assoc Prof Gardner said: An electrical impedance probe to measure Intramuscular Fat; a Dual –Energy X-ray (DEXA) for lean meat yield determination, and hyper spectral imaging devices for a range of meat quality traits.
Testing is currently underway on an electrical impedance probe, which has been designed to determine intramuscular fat content in lamb meat.
In simple terms, a row of needles is inserted into the loin muscle of a carcase and small electrical currents are conducted between the ends of each needle. The higher the amount of intramuscular fat the greater the impedance of the current (fat has 10 times more impedance than meat). The same device should also provide more accurate measure of GR tissue depth. The probe is being tested over the next six months and conceivably could be in commercial use within 12 months, Assoc Prof Gardner told the conference.
At present single-energy x-ray systems are being used to identify skeletal configurations to steer robotic cutting equipment in some processing plants (such as that used by JBS at Bordertown – see separate story here).
Work is currently underway to test whether replacing these single-energy x-ray cameras with dual-energy x-ray cameras can enable simultaneous determination of carcase composition and lean meat yield.
Early development work indicates that these systems can operate at chain speed within an abattoir environment and provide carcase composition estimating accuracy approaching that of CT scans.
If the promising early results achieved so far continue when tested on a much larger data set, these devices are basically ready to go where robotic processing technology is already in use.
Researchers are also relatively bullish about what they believe can be achieved by introducing hyper-spectral imaging devices into processing chains.
Using different wave lengths from light reflections, it can zero in on elements of bone, meat and fat, and in turn should be able to provide more accurate measurements of EMA, tissue depth and intramuscular fat.
Applications for individual animal feedback?
As new measurement technologies come online, what potential exists via electronic individual animal identification for the information captured to be returned as feedback on individual animals to producers?
In response to that question JBS innovation manager Graham Treffone said such issues were still being deliberated on but the potential to use the information provided was unlimited.
Assoc Prof Gardner said the measurement technology also held exciting possibilities for use with Meat & Livestock Australia’s Livestock’s Data Link project, which has been established to provide processing information back to producers online.
“With this sort of technology on tap, there is no reason why that couldn’t start populating Livestock Data Link and start feeding straight into Sheep Genetics Australia predictions for brand new ASBVs, not swinging off one point indicators of fatness and muscularity but whole carcase measurements.
“So I reckon the future, once we get this information on tap, is really exciting, particularly with that structure being put in place right now.”