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High Quality Meat Starts with Animal Care

Meat quality starts at the farm level with how a producer cares for those animals. Best management practices for handling animals, health care, nutrition and transportation all play a part in producing the meat products we enjoy so much.

Regular Animal Care and Handling


For many us, meals start with a meat entrée. As meat-eaters we expect that the meat we buy comes to us as a tasty and quality product. However, meat tastiness and quality doesn't start at the processor, they start at the farm level with how a producer cares for those animals. Best management practices for handling animals, health care, nutrition and transportation all play a part in producing the delicious meat products we enjoy so much. Let's explore how this works.

Producers give careful thought to handling animals from the time they are born through the time they are harvested for food. Animal handling affects meat quality in several ways, including color, juiciness, and tenderness. First, animals must be handled quietly to avoid stress. When an animal becomes stressed, it depletes muscle glycogen, which is basically a form of glucose that an animal uses for energy. In beef cattle, this glycogen depletion leaves the meat a dark red color rather than the normal bright red. It can also cause the meat to be dry. These animals are referred to as dark cutters. In hogs, the meat appears very pale and soft, and the meat loses water through weeping. This causes the meat to be dry and tough. The condition is referred to as pale, soft and exudative, or PSE.

Stress can result from animals fighting, weather changes, fasting or transportation. Simple things such as mixing animals that don't know each other into a group can cause fighting as they work out a pecking order. In other words, the animals seek to sort out who is the boss and who is not. In most cases, the larger animals tend to work their way to the top of the pecking order. Therefore, producers raise and transport animals in groups of similar sizes to avoid excessive fighting. Some processors require truckers who transport animals to their facilities to complete a transportation quality assurance certification program to help them better understand animals and how transportation stress impacts meat quality.

Producers who spend time working with animals are more likely to raise animals that experience lower levels of stress when introduced into a new environment. This could mean producers walk through animal groups each day to check health status or it could mean how producers handle animals when moving those animals through a handling system. Getting animals accustomed to a variety of noises helps them remain calm. Some producers will even play music in their barns to accustom animals to different sounds and human voices. The only time the radio goes off in the barn is when the power goes out.

Understanding Animal Behavior for Effective Handling


Another aspect of animal handling begins with understanding how animals see and react to situations. Any reason for an animal not to move through a handling system can be considered stressful to an animal. Animals move through a handling system more easily whenever producers pay attention to basic concepts. Loud noises can spook animals and make them balk at moving through the system. Animals tend to move toward light, so producers set up their handling system in areas to take advantage of this tendency. Think light at the end of a tunnel.

Humans have a more highly developed ability to perceive depth than animals. While we see a shadow on the floor of the handling system, an animal may perceive the shadow as a deep hole. Animals do not want to cross the "deep hole" and so will balk at the shadow. They are also likely to balk at an object in the system. Coats can be very scary to an animal when they are lying across a gate!

Producers often simply walk through the inside of the handling system to try to see what animals see and thus check for areas that will stress animals and make them less willing to move. As the producer walks through the system, he or she can look for dark areas, items hanging down into the system and check for any bolts or hinges that could bruise an animal. Processors must remove and throw away bruised areas in the meat. Through quality assurance training programs, producers have greatly decreased losses from bruising.

Prioritizing Animal Well-being and Health.


Animal health can also impact meat quality by affecting the amount of fat in the meat, called marbling, and the amount of exterior fat. Marbling and exterior fat both influence the tenderness and juiciness of meat. In order to maintain animal health, most producers vaccinate their animals to prevent sickness. According to research from researches, a disease such as pneumonia not only affects the lungs in an animal but for beef cattle often results in lower quality grades and less tender meat.

Nutrition's impact on meat quality can be attributed to how fast an animal grows. Diets with higher levels of energy and protein result in animals reaching an acceptable market weight at a younger age. This younger age results in more tender meat and in some instances can result in a more acceptable meat color. Animals that do not have access to feed and water for a long period of time during transportation may also produce lower quality meat. This is one of the reasons why livestock haulers can drive longer periods of time than other truck drivers. However, the main concern is the health and welfare of the animals.

So, the next time you enjoy a great tasting piece of meat, remember that it doesn't taste that good by accident. Producers carefully cared for the animal that produced the meat by paying close attention to animal handling practices, health care, nutrition and transportation.

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