Beef finishers who send cattle to the factory regularly will be well aware of the importance of meeting factory specifications and of presenting 'in-spec' cattle to achieve maximum beef price. Farmers receive a bonus for cattle which are 'in-spec' but ticking all the boxes to qualify for it, can be tricky. Northern Ireland's College of Agriculture Food and Rural Enterprise (CAFRE) beef and sheep advisor, Noel McNeil, has recently noted that both beef finishers and suckler to beef farmers should have a knowledge of market specifications and understand why that specification is important.

Producing a product that is in demand and one the market wants is the key to success in any business.

Many different factors are considered when determining the specification of animal carcass and the suitability of it for particular markets. They include:
  • Carcass weight;
  • Fat class;
  • Age at slaughter;
  • Number of farm residences;
  • Quality assurance status;
  • Breed;
  • Country of origin.
McNeil explained: "Beef price can be volatile and while the base price is outside the control of farmers in most cases, meeting the specification targets is an important way of making sure the best price possible is achieved and this is very much within the control of farmers." Other elements which farmers can control include the number of residences or days on the last farm.

Farmers can exercise control over other factors such as the age at slaughter, carcass weight, conformation grade and fat class, however, many farmers find these specifications more challenging to meet.

Continuing, McNeil gave an overview of how farmers can meet the three main targets of weight, conformation grade and fat score.


Carcass weight requirements can vary, however most processors prefer a carcass below 400kg and above 250kg for prime cattle. McNeil continued: "Processors aim to sell as much of the carcass as possible into the highest value markets, and these are demanding in terms of consistency and quality, with pack size being an important part of this.
"Sirloin or fillet steaks of the same retail weight from a 440kg carcass and a 330kg carcass will be very different in shape, making the marketing of the heavier carcass more difficult.
"Farmers can bring cattle to heavier weights to get the adequate fat cover, and both breeding and feeding regimes can contribute to this," he added. "A high-energy diet will enable animals to put down fat cover and help with their finish. "Farmers should look at the timing of the final high-energy diet finishing phase to strike a balance between weight and fat cover."

McNeil suggested that farmers use a weighbridge to weigh and condition score cattle regularly. He noted this will help monitor performance and allow farmers to select cattle at correct weights and fat covers.

Conformation grade

Breeding and genetics have a significant impact on grade, but diet also plays an important role in making sure animals meet their full genetic potential. Suckler to beef farmers have a lot of influence in this area, being in full control of both the cow type and the bull used to sire their offspring.

E and U grades may pay better on a pricing grid, but farmers need to consider carefully the management issues with more extreme carcass animals such as calving ease.

Alternatively, beef finishers have to judge cattle at purchase to try and select as many as possible to meet the desired grade. Diet then comes into play to make sure the animal reaches its full genetic potential.

Fat class impact on beef price

The ideal fat score is a 2+ or above and below a 4+.

The CAFRE beef and sheep advisor explained that processors look for this fat cover because steaks from the loin of an animal, which is not well covered, will not look visually appealing and will also cook differently.

"Carcasses which are over finished are lower yielding in saleable beef due to more trimming which leads to waste," he added. McNeil again emphasised breeding and diet are important factors in getting the desired fat class, e.g., at the extremes, native breed heifers will lay down fat at a much earlier stage than continental bulls, and will do so on much lower-energy diets.

The ideal finishing diet for an animal depends on breed and type, with young bulls, steers and heifers requiring different diets and energy contents to achieve optimum performance.

Higher protein diets are good for growing the frame of an animal but to put down sufficient amounts of fat, it needs to be on a high-energy diet. To assess an animal for fat cover, the areas to look at are the tail head, transverse processes and along the ribs, and in heifers, around the udder, according to McNeil.

Handling animals should always done in a safe handling facility.

Concluding, McNeil explained that farmers can control what is happening inside the farm gate and said: "Meeting specification maximises price and ultimately generates more income."