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Meet market specifications on time

Dan Hickey April 22, 2020
Meeting Market Specifications

Manage the nutrition, health and welfare of sale animals to meet target market specifications on time.

Guidelines for managing the grazing system to achieve livestock performance targets

The stocking rate (DSE/ha) and total number of cattle sold each year has a major impact on the profitability of southern beef enterprises. Retail yield is affected by muscling (principally due to genetics) and fatness (partly due to genetics and partly due to quantity and quality of feed consumed). It is important to know your herd capability (genetics) in regard to muscularity, yield and fatness.

Ensure market specifications are met at the point of sale

Sale animals typically include weaners, cull breeding stock and traded stock. The predicted sale liveweight, carcase weight and any other characteristic required for the target market need to be within the specified range to ensure market specifications are met at the point of sale. The liveweights at different ages are well known for most prime beef markets. So are the minimum and maximum backfat requirements for different cattle liveweights. See Tool 7.1 and Tool 7.2 for a range of market specifications.

Manage the production system to meet target market specifications

A goal is to have no more than 10% of animals fall outside the target market specifications for age, sex, dentition, weight (live or carcase), muscle and fat. To achieve this, manage the grazing and husbandry system to reach the desired  target performance and market outcomes.

Growth rate will affect the weight for age, fatness, marbling and ossification score:

  • Weight for age is influenced by growth rate. A faster growth rate results in heavier and fatter animals of the same age, or younger animals of the same weight (Wilkins et al., 2009). The main contributor to growth rate is how the supply and quality of feed on offer is managed.
  • Fatness and marbling are mainly affected by growth rate. A higher growth rate within a herd sale group results in increased fat thickness and intra-muscular (marbling) fat content at the same weight (McKiernan et al., 2009). These are influenced by how you manage feed quality and supply.
  • Ossification score increases as animals get older. Also, at the same age, heifers have higher ossification scores than steers. You can ensure animals retain ossification scores below the maximum allowable for Meat Standards Australia (MSA – see Tool 7.3) quality grading (less than 300 or as low as 200 in some markets) by ensuring a whole-of-life growth rate of more than 0.6kg/day.

Module 2: Pasture growth and Module 3: Pasture utilisation discuss pasture growth and expected animal performance and should be read in conjunction with this module. Poor growth early in life (up to weaning) can result in smaller carcases than from cattle grown rapidly to weaning when marketed at the same age or conversely they will be older when marketed at the same weight (which could affect market suitability). These slow grown animals will, however, show little or no difference in carcase composition or beef quality when finished. Take this into account when planning the beef breeding enterprise around the seasonal patterns of pasture growth – see Module 1: Setting directions.

Avoid feed restrictions longer than two months in cattle up to 250kg liveweight

Animals fed to achieve target weights more quickly will eat less feed per kilogram gain. So plan carefully how your sale cattle need to grow to meet the market specifications:

Carefully plan the growth of sale cattle to market

  • Calculating the daily growth rate required from your starting point (say weaning) to the expected sale date for the stock to achieve the necessary sale weight (see Table 1, below).
  • Providing the cattle with pastures of sufficient quantity and quality to achieve the predicted growth rate. Refer to Module 3: Pasture utilisation for more information about cattle performance on pasture, and Tool 3.5 to assist with these calculations.
  • Routinely weighing cattle from weaning up to point of sale to compare their actual liveweight with the predicted growth path to ensure that they reach the target weight at sale.

The benefits will be greater precision in marketing, a higher proportion of your cattle meeting market specifications and a higher price.

Table 1: Example of calculations for growth rate
Current liveweight (eg at weaning)250kg
Desired sale weight450kg
Weight gain required to meet sale weight200kg (ie 450 – 250)
Time to sale250days (for example)
Average growth rate required to meet sale weight0.80kg/day (ie 200/250)
Expected weight 100 days after weaning330kg (ie 250 + 100 × 0.8)
Actual weight 100 days after weaning310kg (at weighing after 100 days)
Time left to sale150 days (ie 250 dash; 100)
Average growth rate required to meet sale weight0.93kg/day (ie [450 – 310]/150)


In this example, better nutrition will be needed from here to achieve a higher growth rate. It is important also to ensure growth rate is sufficient for fat lay down for the particular target market.

Manage the grazing system to meet target market outcomes

The focus needs to be on the relationship between cattle nutrient requirements, pasture availability and quality and how these interact to affect rate of growth, composition of growth and product quality. The basic principles of animal to meet target nutrition, their relationship to animal performance and the conversion of pastures to animal product are discussed in Chapter 9: Growth pathways to successful market outcomes of the MLA publication, Towards Sustainable Grazing: The Professional Producer’s Guide

Managing cattle to meet weight and fat specifications

A tool is available to assist producers make nutritional decisions that impact market specifications – the MLA BeefSpecs calculator (see Tool 7.3).

BeefSpecs is a simple computer tool on the MLA website at will calculate growth rate (demonstrated in Figure 1 above), as well as final fat based on the expected growth rate and other inputs. It reports final live and carcase weights and predicts P8 fat thickness, using inputs of initial liveweight, frame score, breed type, current P8 fat depth, expected average daily gain, feed type (grain or pasture), time on feed and use (or not) of growth promotants.

BeefSpecs data can be used to make critical management decisions. For example, forage crops or supplementary feeding may be used to make animals grow faster, or producers may opt to grow cattle out gradually so they don’t get over fat.

  1. BeefSpecs highlights critical short term factors that can be manipulated to achieve the desired outcomes:
  • time on feed (simple impact of initial weight and fat).
  • growth rate (interaction with maturity type and subsequent effect on fat).
  • hormone growth promotants (HGPs) (effect on fat)
  • assessment skills.
  1. BeefSpecs facilitates an assessment of long term factors that can be manipulated to achieve the desired outcomes:
  • maturity type (genetics)
  • pre-finishing treatment (starting fatness)
  • feed planning.

At all times, it is important that costs associated with achieving the target growth path are considered together with returns from the expected outcomes.

Flexible management is required to incorporate both short- and long-term targets and multiple options for stock production. If you find that your cattle are:

Use flexible management to meet stock performance targets

  • doing better than planned, consider new options such as an alternative market selling earlier, conserving excess pasture or purchasing additional stock.
  • not meeting target, recalculate the growth rate and develop a new strategy such as an alternative market, alternative pasture sources, supplementary feeding, lot feeding or alternative pasture management.

The timing of these decisions needs to be early enough to allow the growth path to be adjusted to meet the timing of the revised point of sale. BeefSpecs can assist here also.

Use feedback from the marketplace to inform future marketing decisions

Other corrective actions may be based on market feedback. Although this is received after the current sale event it can be used to improve the planning and management of the nutrition and health of your cattle to meet future market specifications.

An additional option is to change the genetic characteristics of the animals selected for mating, if you are unable to deliver to the specifications required in your environment with the current genetics. You need to ensure that this will be profitable and feasible and recognise that this is a longer-term solution as discussed in Module 1: Setting directions and Module 4: Cattle genetics.

What to measure and when

  • Ongoing measurements need to be taken for liveweight and any other characteristics included in the target market specifications that can be monitored for live animals. This may involve one or a combination of:
    • Real-time ultrasound measurements of fat depth, marbling score and eye-muscle area
    • Visual appraisal of muscle and fat score
    • Dentition
    • Pregnancy testing of females.
  • For liveweight and growth rate, measurement of growing stock should begin at weaning and be repeated at least every three months (more frequently with rapidly changing pasture conditions) until two months before sale, from which point cattle should be monitored according to feed conditions and target market/s.
    • The percentage of your animals that met target market specifications, when they were sold. Collect carcase feedback when available.
    • The timing of stock health treatments should be planned to ensure there is no restriction to market access. Comply with the manufacturer’s instructions for use.

Good live animal assessment skills should be obtained or honed by all producers to adequately allow them to assess stock at critical times pre finishing and for marketing purposes.

Quite often, the failure of animals to meet specifications is due to poor assessment prior to sale where decisions could have been made to either keep animals longer, sell earlier or simply draft into specific mobs targeted at alternative markets. These skills should be an essential part of a cattle producer’s ‘kit’ similar to pasture assessment skills.

The skills can be acquired at a number of live animal assessment skills workshops generally conducted by various state departments of primary industries and agriculture across southern Australia and also at More Beef from Pastures workshops. 

Further information