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MLA seeks global solution providers to enhance Australia’s red meat supply chain

Meat & Livestock Australia is seeking expressions of interest from global collaborators with solutions to objectively measure value characteristics – from productivity, welfare and eating quality to marbling potential – in live animals. With the potential to transform decision-making for producers, feedlotters, and processors, it’s a research priority that’s turning a lot of heads.       

Cattle in a paddock
Words by Casey Dunn

Breeding more efficient animals that capture greater value at the farm and feedlot level is one of Meat & Livestock Australia’s strategic goals, and the core focus of its latest commercial opportunity.   

The industry red meat research and development corporation (RDC) is currently searching for partners to develop objective measurement technologies that enhance data driven decision-making in live animals.

Buoyed by the success of investments aimed at better describing carcass value and eating quality at the processing end, MLA is broadening its focus to target animals earlier in the supply chain.

MLA Program Manager of Objective Measurement, Richard Apps, explained, “If we can predict the likely performance of an animal – and its carcass qualities – early in its life, we can better understand the market we should prepare it for, and how to manage feed most efficiently.”

  • Interested in MLA’s opportunity? Visit the AgriFutures growAG. platform here, to submit proposals and learn more about the Request for Tender (RFT).

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Knowing potential early on could save costly feed mistakes 

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Marbling is one of the key characteristics that determines how much a consumer enjoys their red meat meal. It’s a trait that attracts premium prices – and it’s highly influenced by nutrition. But the amount of marbling, or intramuscular fat, an animal has doesn’t become apparent until it gets to the processing plant.  

“That means a feedlot could put an animal through a 300-day feed program if they’re targeting a premium grain fed brand,” said Richard. “But if after 300-days you only end up with an average marble score, that feedlot has lost a lot of money in feed costs. They would have been better off saving the grain by turning that animal off at a lighter weight into the domestic market.”

The high numbers, huge feed demands, and tightly controlled environment of feedlots make the feedlot industry an obvious entry point for the development of objective measurement technologies that predict turnoff potential and inform marketing decisions. However, applications are encouraged for on-farm use.

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MLA hopes this opportunity will uncover technology that also supports the average family farm. “The program is all about information – and value – flowing back up the supply chain. Live animal objective measurement could help the genetics industry improve selection for carcase value, so producers can access the genetics they know processors will pay more for,” explained Richard.

“It could help producers get access to processing facilities when direct to works consignment is tight, because they’ll have objective data to support cattle quality [before processing]. Or, it could help producers secure a better price at the feedlot, because it takes the guesswork out of their animal’s marbling potential.”

“That flow of information happens now,” added Richard, “Albeit it's not objective, and a little opaque.” MLA’s aim now is to make that flow more transparent, so producers understand, and see, where the value can be captured.

Blank canvas lets partners translate existing solutions – but leaves space for blue sky thinking  

Richard acknowledges that objective measurement technologies are more challenging on live animals than carcasses – from a technology and cost perspective. But he’s optimistic.

  • Interested in MLA’s opportunity? Visit the AgriFutures growAG. platform here, to learn more about the Request for Tender.
Frontmatec's innovative camera measurement technology

“There is already a range of non-invasive technologies in use in livestock production, on live animals and carcases. Things like, ultrasound and hyperspectral cameras, nuclear magnetic resonance, and microwave technology. So there’s potential to build on these, or develop entirely new approaches.”

“This RFT is us telling the world that we’re looking for this stuff, and seeing who might pop their head up,” said Richard. “We’re hoping for a balanced portfolio of projects right across the R&D pipeline: some close to market; some in proof-of-concept; some ‘blue-sky’ opportunities that could change the game.”

Just how much MLA will invest depends on the nature of the proposals they receive. But with all work likely to be managed through MLA’s Donor Company, partnerships will be on a dollar-for-dollar co-investment model.

“If someone comes in a with a million-dollar project, we’ll provide $500,000 and they’ll need to bring the other $500,000,” said Richard. “It’s critical we leverage the investment for our levy payers.”

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Collaboration with global leader explores objective meat grading tool

One advocate for MLA’s co-investment model is Frontmatec, a multinational with a proven track record of developing technologies that support the meat processing value chain. Recognised as global leaders in grading equipment for pork, the Danish company partnered with MLA for development of objective cut surface grading technology for beef.

Frontmatec R&D Manager, Thomas Lauridsen, explained, “Our camera measures the cut surface, in this case, between the 12th and 13th rib of a beef carcase, for eye muscle area, marbling, meat colour, fat colour, and rib fat thickness. It provides an objective measurement; without the bias we see in manual grading.”  

Running since March 2021, the project is about to move into a year-long trial to see how the camera holds up to everyday use in processing plants. Putting it through its paces, will be Australia’s largest vertically integrated beef supply chain, Australian Country Choice (ACC).

“We couldn’t have gotten to this point without the support of MLA,” said Thomas. “How else could a Danish company – without an office or established connections in your country – solve this problem in Australia? Our partnership with MLA has given us access to an organisation who wants to closely collaborate; with enthusiastic supply chain partners like ACC; and to leverage funding that makes the expensive, lengthy trials achievable for a company like ours.”

With the Frontmatec Q-FOM camera successfully progressing through a series of AUS-MEAT Accreditation trials, the partnership looks set to deliver the industry’s first fully accredited automated carcase measurement device for a range of beef grading traits.   

Calling all solution providers

The official RFT closed on 30 November 2022, but potential partners shouldn’t be deterred, as MLA is still seeking applications. “We still want to hear from you,” explained Richard. “We’ve tried to make it easy for people, so we’re not asking for detailed projects – just an expression of interest that says, ‘This is our idea or technology. This is where we think it fits in the supply chain. And this is the value we think it can bring to Australian beef, sheep or goat industries.”

For more information on MLA’s commercial opportunity, visit the AgriFutures growAG. platform here.

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