When to sell your beef cattle depends on many things, but the two most common reasons are to maximise returns or cut losses by quitting stock.

Payment for slaughtered cattle is based on a “Beef Classification System” or “Grading” of the carcass. This is operated by the NZ Meat Producers’ Board and is implemented in each meat processing plant by trained graders from the company, who are regularly checked by external supervising graders to make sure standards remain consistent and impartial.

If your stock is not fit for slaughter, then you’ll have to sell them in the “store market”. This may be because they’re not heavy enough or don’t have enough fat cover. However, remember that a meat company will process your stock, but you may not make much of a return.

The grading system is regularly reviewed to meet industry changes - so check this by obtaining the latest information from Meat New Zealand.

The weight of carcass meat you get from a live animal is calculated by the “killing out percentage” (KO%). Multiply the carcass weight by 100, then divide it by live weight. In cattle, it ranges from 45-55%. So if you weigh your stock before slaughter, you’ll be paid for 45-55% of that weight as carcass.

If you are home killing (remember the legal restrictions), the butcher can only return to you 45-55% of the live beast. The weight loss is from blood, intestines and contents, head, feet, and hide. The remaining carcass is made up of bone, muscle, and fat. Some internal fat may have been removed.

The beef classification system allocates carcass grades according to:

  •         Maturity
  •         Sex
  •         Fat content
  •         Muscling

Carcass weight is relevant only for payment purposes.

Animals and hence their carcass types are classified as:

  • Bull - entire cattle with masculine characteristics
  • Steer-male cattle castrated when young.
  • Cow-female cattle with more than 6 permanent incisors.
  • Heifer - female cattle with less than 6 permanent teeth.
  • Vealer - cattle up to 14 months of age, ie maiden females, castrated males, and entire males which are not showing masculine characteristics.
  • Bobby calf - milk-fed calf under 2 weeks old. Not classified into classes or weight ranges.

Fat thickness. Carcasses are classified on fat depth (subcutaneous fat) over the 12th rib. The fat classes are:

  • M - deficient in fat cover to 1mm. Carcasses under 160kg will go into this class regardless of fat cover.
  • L - deficient in fat cover of 1-3mm. Cows in this class will be graded M or manufacturing.
  • P - fat thickness of 4-7mm
  • K - fat thickness of 8-12mm.
  • G - fat thickness of 13-18mm.
  • T - fat thickness of 19-24mm
  • E - fat thickness over 24mm.

Fat trim. Excess fat is trimmed off various parts of the carcass and you may be penalised for this as markets today don’t want excess fat. Grades G, T, and E are most likely to need trimming.

Excess yellow fat. This is common in some Jersey carcasses and where animals have been fed diets rich in carotene. It has no effect on eating quality and is only a consumer perception, but people are hard to convince otherwise.

Muscling. There are 3 classes based on the shape of the carcass:

  • Class 1. Profiles convex to super convex. Large muscular rear ends as in Continental breeds.
  • Class 2. Profiles straight but may vary from slight convex to slightly concave. Good muscle development.
  • Could be many traditional British beef breeds or beef x dairy breeds.
  • Class 3. Profiles generally concave. Lacking muscle development. Dairy types.

Weight ranges. For steers, heifers, and cows, for each muscling class and for each fat class, there are a series of weight ranges on which payment is made. So the table showing this can appear quite complicated.

The prices paid for each grade vary and this is published in what is called “the meat schedule” by meat companies. The full table of grades is not published but the main ones are. You can find it in the provincial papers at the start of each week, or more often if markets change rapidly. Companies are very competitive and it’s a bit like petrol prices going up and down.

For vealers there are only three grades:

  • M - up to 60kg
  • L - 60.5-115kg
  • P - 115.5-160kg

Bulls are simple. There are no grades and you are paid simply on carcass weight for the 8 weight ranges.

Cows are processed mainly into manufacturing beef (grinding beef) for hamburgers. Old beef cows are very much fatter than culled dairy cows. All emaciated stock go “down the chute” for rendering into meat and bone meal.

Stock not fit for human consumption, or cannot bear weight on all four legs, should not be sent to meat works. They should go to a licensed pet food processor or be legally killed on the farm for pet food.

Meat companies are now operating Quality and Trace Back systems so when you provide stock, you’ll have to report what veterinary treatments they’ve had prior to slaughter. Killing sheets also provide information on carcass defects. Coded letters describe these and a key provided for explanation.

Implications for you on the farm

Everyone can grow feed in Spring, so this is when store prices are usually high when everyone wants stock. Make sure you don’t pay too much, as you’ll not be selling those stock if properly grown and finished, for say 12 or 18 months when markets could have changed.

When you buy stock, make sure you have a plan for when you will market them. Buying stock on a high and selling on a low market are sure ways to go broke. If you’re just buying “mouths” to save mowing grass, then that’s hardly being in the beef business.

The farm and the return you want from investment will dictate the kind of stock you should buy. Some farmers buy “forward stores” (ie nearly fat) for a rapid turnover of capital, and others will buy poorer stores that will take a long time to finish and bring a return

If there is good pasture growth, it’s tempting to hold on to stock to gain more weight. This extra liveweight will then move the animals into the next weight range class, and you’ll get that higher price for each kg you produce. But make sure they won’t get over fat as this could be penalised.

In response, meat companies will increase prices to maintain throughput, as it takes a lot of money to keep meat plants running. You may find South Island companies offering premiums at certain times to procure stock in the North Island. This has bad implications for animal welfare, as stock have to travel long distances to slaughter.

If you’re on a farm that grows good feed in the spring, then dries out in early summer, it would be wise to grow heifers of an early-maturing beef breed or dairy x beef breed. Angus or Hereford x Friesian would be ideal. Red Devon, Beef Shorthorn or Murray Grey bulls on Friesian cows would also produce excellent calves but would be in shorter supply. You could get them off the farm at an acceptable weight and before they got too fat, before the grass dried up.

If you can consistently grow good feed all year round, then you can run heifers to get rid of first, then have some steers to mature later in the season. The P grade is a good all-round target to aim for. Heifers make good home-kill beef because of their smaller carcass size and good fat content. Many people consider that fat cover produces flavour in beef.

If you run later maturing beef animals and you hit a feed shortage, then you’ll have problems of not being able to finish them. This would happen with large Continental breeds or their crosses, or you had Friesian steers or bulls. You would either have to quit them at lower carcass weights, with no finish on them, and you’d probably be penalised for this.

The alternative (never a popular one) would be to keep these later maturing cattle for at least another year till they got to a decent weight and fat cover. The cost of that extra wintering would probably kill the profit, and they’d probably pug up the farm in the winter into the bargain.

Meat companies always pay high prices in spring when fatstock are in shorter supply, as growing and finishing stock during winter is always more difficult and more costly to the farmer.

In drought situations, regardless of what breed or sex you had, you may be forced to get rid of stock and cut your losses. Or you’d have to face the cost of supplementary feeding till it rains and the grass grows again. This could be at least a year ahead.

Bulls are the easiest to farm when feed disappears. They can go on to bare maintenance feed and lose weight without any carcass implications, as you get paid on weight alone. But remember that as they get older they get more of a problem to manage - they break fences and gates, dig holes and become bad-tempered. Boredom and no feed to keep them busy would cause you all sorts of problems on a small farm surrounded by neighbours’ properties.

If you are serious about wanting to make money from beef cattle, you’ll probably need assistance to guide you through all this maze of information. A meat company buyer or a stock and station agent can tell you what stage your animals are at - ie. the likely carcass weight, grade and fatness. There are also private agents operating in some areas. Make sure you deal with a reputable person who will put your interests first. Ask around the neighbourhood.

It’s a good idea to weigh your stock regularly if you can get access to scales. Weigh bands are not reliable for stock other than calves and up to the small yearling stage. Scales can be hired from vets or shared with neighbours.

In good growth conditions, stock should grow at about 1.5-1.8kg liveweight/day, and in winter when pasture growth slows, you should expect about 0.6-0.8kg/day. It’s always a good idea to weigh stock before the agent arrives as then you have some base to negotiate from. Weigh them at the same time each day straight off pasture, or let them empty out in the yards for 2-3 hours before weighing.

When buying beef animals for small farms, demand stock that is polled (naturally horned) or has been properly dehorned with a hot cauterising iron. Horned cattle can cause many problems while on the farm, in transit, and at the meat works.