Making the grade
Consistent, precise and efficient grading performs a vital role when it comes to making the most of the animals that pass through an abattoir.
Automated grading stations can help boost all of these factors, but only when paired with the correct specialist software. Rob Stephens, Managing Director of SI (Systems Integration) explains how the right software solution can maximise an abattoir’s efficiency and profitability.
“For decades, grading has been a skilled profession, provided by MLC registered graders and abattoirs were mandated to contract their services. Over a number of years, abattoirs have brought this expensive service in-house and directly employed MLC graders, but no matter how skilled the graders are, inconsistencies on grading are inevitable.
“In recent years, however, automated grading using video image analysis (VIA) has become increasingly commonplace throughout the UK and Ireland, with several major slaughterhouses installing the equipment in facilities up and down the country. As this technology improves and progresses towards full automation, manual grading may become a rarity, especially if data can be effectively shared between abattoirs and farmers.
“Like any new approach, the use of VIA has not been welcomed by all, as some farmers have voiced concerns about handing over such an important part of the production process to a computer algorithm. This issue was also raised in recent guidance notes from the UK Department for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), which explained that human graders ‘do not always entirely agree nor will they ever entirely agree with the grades produced by the machines’.
“It continues, however, that automated systems are ‘designed to be more consistent and reliable than manual graders.’ So, despite the concerns of transferring a manual process to an automated one, the grades being digital produced are recognised throughout the industry as more accurate.
“By integrating data from automated grading with other processes using specialist software, an abattoir can gain a much bigger and more comprehensive picture of its business. For example, our grading station applications eliminate many of the complications associated with labelling and weighing. This is because they can be set to automatically print off different label stock, according to everything from species and carcass type to the specifications and ages.
“This information can then be neatly tied into an abattoir’s wider computer systems, connecting it to everything from traceability software to the site’s booking and scheduling systems. Importantly, data can also be shared with FSA (Food Standards Agency) screens within the abattoir, capturing information both antemortem and post-mortem.
“By taking an integrated software approach different technologies and systems can be brought together to give ‘one version of the truth’. This information can then be used to deliver operational efficiencies as well as greater governance of traceability.
“For example, when an animal reaches the grading station, a profile will automatically be set up to record its weight, grade, age, etc. Then, when you need to fulfil orders against the daily requirement for what you need to produce, according to customer profiles, designation or destination code, the software automatically checks which animals match the specifications.
Simplifying the Payment Process or Maximising Profit?
“Through our algorithms, we can work out the profitability of each consignment of animal, bought from the market. Because these animals are bought without knowing weight or quality, the software can work out the value at the grading station and then the value after animals have been slaughtered, boned and sold to customers.
“As animals are scanned in and out, the abattoir knows when and where livestock and meat have gone to. When combined with SI’s least-cost formulation, the abattoir can ensure that the meat produced from the carcass can be sold at the best possible price with the minimum wastage.
“For the farmers and producers, the time taken to process payment can be reduced as our software incorporates the Eurogrid grading system, and feeds the data captured back into the livestock payment system. The software also checks the farm assurance status, through its integrations with Red Tractor, SPECC and other schemes, which in turn affects the price.
“Thanks to this technology, it is now possible to provide same day payments, so when the batch kill is complete, the abattoir can automatically price it.
“One of the other benefits of our grading station application is that it can also be used to re-grade carcasses from previous dates, ensuring consistent standards and the ability to quickly resolve any disputes with suppliers.
“Now, it’s not essential to be within the abattoir to understand what’s happening. Automation and data capture can provide online visibility of the whole kill line, wherever you are, to provide a complete management overview.
“Ultimately, though there is still debate over the benefits of automatic and manual grading, the industry is trending to increased use of VIA. However, whether VIA is installed or not, management of an abattoir’s grading station within the kill line process can be significantly improved by the application of software developed specifically for the environment.
Within an abattoir, the only effective way to deliver automation is by the application of specialist software rather than standard MES or ERP systems. For any abattoir considering an upgrade to your existing livestock systems and further automation, our food productivity experts are here to help. We already supply some of the largest meat producers throughout the UK, Canada and the USA with reliable and state of the art Livestock Systems.