Eye study may help export beef
Beef cattle researchers are looking into the possible relationship between an individual animal’s eyeball and age. If a direct correlation is found between the two characteristics, sources said more beef could be available for export to countries with restrictions against U.S. beef.
Michael Dikeman, animal science professor with Kansas State University, said that the weight and/or nitrogen contact of the lens might correlate with the animal's age, as previous research has shown in swine.
“We are currently in the early stages of our study, as we have only been collecting data on age-verified cattle for about a month,” Dikeman told WLJ last week. That data includes carcass information, maturity data and the weights and nitrogen content of eyeballs.
Researchers are gathering the eyes from cattle with known birth dates between 14-36 months of age, Dikeman said. The lenses are then weighed and tested for nitrogen content.
According to Dikeman the main obstacle is finding older cattle with verifiable birth dates.
Currently, the U.S. plans on using a carcass grading system called "A40" to guarantee to Japanese officials that American beef products will be from cattle less than 20 months of age. However, Dikeman told WLJ that “A40" cattle are more likely cattle that are 17 months or younger, which means a lot of cattle that might be eligible to produce beef for Japan and other restrictive export markets aren’t allowed that opportunity.
“The average age of ‘A40' cattle is around 15.8 months,” said Dikeman. “About 90 percent of cattle that would qualify for exports to 20-month-and-younger markets would be excluded. Perhaps this eyeball research will offer up an opportunity to allow most of those cattle to have their beef shipped to more restrictive markets.”
According to Dikeman, his team would like to have data on at least 500 age-verified animals, hopefully ranging between 13-40 months of age. “If we get enough animals up to 36 months of age that would be okay. However, by going with an even wider range, we could develop an even greater confidence rate in the eyeball test, if there is indeed a correlation found.”
Dikeman said it has been extremely hard to find age-verified cattle that are between 28-36 months of age. “The big push for age verification has just been over the past couple of years, and any cattle that were born prior to that probably don’t have a lot of concrete birth records,” he said.
The process of collecting the eyeballs was called a “labor- and time-intensive” process and was said to be a little bit expensive. However, Dikeman said there are also plans to look at new scanning technology to see if the process can be made simpler and more efficient.
He also said that the extra expense could be absorbed by packers and the industry, particularly if export markets show a lot of demand for U.S. beef when borders reopen.
The cattle being used for K-State’s research are being processed through commercial plants throughout the country, and the project itself has been funded through the Kansas Beef Council. Dikeman indicated that preliminary results of the program should be known before the end of the year, but that a final report on the issue wouldn’t probably be ready until next spring. — Steven D. Vetter, WLJ Editor
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