Understanding the red meat classification system

The meat of younger slaughter animals usually sells for a higher price on the market, but carcass shape and fat covering also play a role, says Shane Brody.

Understanding the red meat classification system

In South Africa, red meat (goats, sheep and cattle) is graded according to three basic characteristics.

These are:

  • age (the meat of younger animals is more tender),
  • carcass size (important because of the appearance of meat when packed out in the butchery or supermarket), and
  • fat covering or content (fat makes red meat more succulent).

To ascertain the age of a slaughter animal if you don’t know its history, look at the number of milk (deciduous) or permanent adult teeth on the lower jaw.

After the milk teeth are shed, the permanent teeth erupt (emerge) in pairs, until there are eight.

Although the timing of the eruptions varies slightly from one breed to another, the table below gives a rough estimate of age.

Valuable tips
Consider the following to ensure that your animal fetches the best price possible:

  • Castrate a bull calf properly if you are planning to sell it as an ox (steer). An incorrectly castrated animal may still be regarded as a bull, and will sell for a lower price, as its meat will be tougher.
  • Brand your cattle carefully so that you do not damage muscle tissue under the skin, as this will reduce the animal’s value.
  • Ensure that the animal is fat enough for marketing. A carcass with a fat grade of 0/1 (no fat or very little fat) will sell for considerably less than one with a 2 or 3 grading (good fat covering over most of the carcass).
  • A reputable livestock agent or experienced farmer can show you how to judge a living animal for the expected fat grade before slaughter.

Choose the right breed for the environment
The breed is also important. A good British beef breed such as the Hereford is more suited to an environment in which pasture can supply its nutritional requirements in the lean winter months.

It would be risky, however, to farm such an animal in an arid region such as the Northern Cape if you cannot boost its nutrition during times of food scarcity.

On the other hand, if you farm Ngunis, which are more suited to dry conditions, you may encounter problems with marketing weaners as many feedlots do not view this breed as a ‘beef animal’.

All the same, you can grow weaners to A/B-grade or B-grade and receive a decent price from abattoirs and butchers.

If you farm on sourveld, with lower quality grass forage all year round, you can run a beef breed such as Red Angus or Black Angus by supplying a nutritional lick. These breeds can command high prices when marketed as weaners to a feedlot.

If farming in a semi-arid, grassland-type biome, consider a composite breed (developed by crossing two or three different breeds) such as a Braford or Simbra.

Red meat grading according to age (number of teeth) and fat covering

Sources: ‘Classification of Red Meat: A key to more effective marketing’ (samic.co.za); Methods of determining age of cattle (unce.unr.edu).