The cattle are sent to the Cowra Abattoir, which is located about 270km (four and a half hours drive by truck) due west of Sydney.
As we often find ourselves as the conduit to consumers of information regarding the processing of our beef, we felt it imperative to have an informed understanding of the whole procedure and so in September 2015 we were given the opportunity to visit Cowra Abattoir. Details of the procedure from start to finish are outlined in a personal account below.
The truck arrives late on a Monday afternoon, and the cattle are kept as a single mob (usually between 8 to 10 head), and are on clean water from the time they arrive to the time they ‘check-out’. The organic run is always first-up the next morning, so the cattle are not off feed for more than 24 hours. We feed them copra meal (ground coconut husk) prior to leaving the farm to ensure energy levels and some gut-fill is maintained during this time. Handling of the live cattle is one of the most critical parts of the Abattoir, as stress is a major determinant of meat quality. We were pleased to observe the stock-handlers worked well with our quiet cattle.
On Tuesday morning it was really hard to see die and we thought about whether they sense death? If they do, it was not apparent to us, as the cattle behaved no differently than they do at the farm. The stun procedure is first and this is done with a ‘bolt’ which fires out into the brain (and back), removing all consciousness instantly. The gun operator immediately checks for a ‘Positive Corneal Response’ (PCR) to ensure the stun has been effective. Despite all the great improvements made to the ‘Knocking Box’ area (to maximise operator safety and animal considerations), no system is perfect, but the back-up system was. One of the 10 animals processed on the day gave a positive PCR – with-in seconds, the back-up gun was employed, and the issue was averted.
The processing of the carcass is as what you would expect – confronting for the un-initiated. Once the body is inverted, the oesophicous is clamped to avoid carcass contamination later. Next, low-voltage stimulation (for about 30 seconds) is used to help the bleeding out process, then the body heads into the processing area. Whilst the plant is not new, it has been modernised with all the latest equipment, and the work was done with great dexterity and very professionally.
The meat inspectors check the carcasses and offal carefully at various stages, and the floor manager watched the whole operation. Traceability is very accurately followed using a series of stickers and procedures.
The bodies are hocked, beheaded, skinned, gutted and stamped (including the round ‘Gundooee Organics’ stamp). Next, they are halved, washed, weighed, labeled, and then swung around to the chillers to commence their important rigor process. This chilling process must be done at the correct speed, and is a major determinant of meat quality.
Some time early Wednesday morning, the carcasses are assessed for fat cover, fat and meat colour, and also marbling. This information together with the hot-carcass weight (HCW) and the ‘offal recovery’ is sent to me at about 7.00am to assist with my allocation of carcasses/offal. All purchases of our beef request differing carcass specifications, and with each shipment, I do my best to match the carcass type with the purchaser. Some times this can be difficult (and frustrating), but easier when the season/growth rates are good and carcasses are fat. The marble score or the EMA (Eye-muscle area – used as a guide to asses how much usable meat is on a carcass – the ‘usable meat’ percentage) is not used to allocate carcasses as these assessment criteria are shared around equally for everyone, as all clients want the same from these two attributes.
Wednesday afternoon, the carcasses are prepared for ‘Load-out’. The sides are weighed (this is the weight I use for invoicing) then cut in half, thus making two fore and two hind quarters. This is necessary as the meat-handlers need to be able to carry the beef on their shoulder on and off the trucks, which we can tell you from experience is test of strength and will. If the bodies are too heavy (over 300km HCW), the quarters are further broken down into more-manageable sizes.
The heavy bodies are from more physically mature animals and so are sought after by many clients, but they do create extra work for the abattoir staff cutting them down further (we greatly appreciate their assistance when these occur).
Note: The carcass ‘Sale Window’ is 250kg-300kg for weight (CCW), and 8mm-20mm for fat (at the P8 site). This is (broadly) what the butchers and restaurants have asked me to supply, but it is not easy to do when the product takes over 3 years (from conception) to produce. It is even tougher when the market demands varying quantities, which is why I implemented a ‘Permanent Order’ system for carcass ordering. Physiological maturity occurs at around 30 months in cattle, which is when the growth slows, and fat is more-readily deposited around the body. Our most challenging job is ensuring all the cattle are within the ‘Sale Window’ before they become too heavy (exceed 300kg, but not enough fat).
The whole morning we spent at the abattoir was very productive and whilst visually confronting at times, it was very worthwhile and enlightening. We came away with sound knowledge, and confidence that the live animals and in turn, also the carcasses are given every consideration possible. Interestingly, our most lasting impression was our observations of the staff, and the consideration they all had for one and other. This consideration filtered throughout the entire plant, and could be found in every facet of operation. This is what we believe is fundamentally responsible for the quality of the product leaving the plant.
We thank Wayne (our tour guide), Peter and the team at Cowra Abattoir for allowing us to learn first-hand about the operation, and we congratulate them for their work.