Rob Stephens, SI’s CEO, explains how the right software solution can maximise an abattoir’s efficiency and profitability.
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 abattoir grading stations can help boost all of these factors, but only when paired with the correct specialist software.

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.

VIA and move towards automation

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.

Technology delivers practical operational efficiencies that really matter, particularly for areas of governance like traceability. With it, when an animal reaches the abattoir grading station, a profile is automatically set up to record key data including weight, grade and age.

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.

Consistent improvement

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, and can be set to automatically print off different label stock, according to everything from species and carcass type to the specifications and ages.

More than this, it can 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. Data can also be shared with FSA (Food Standards Agency) and screens within the abattoir, capturing information both ante-mortem and post-mortem.

But it is how technology can be designed for ease-of-use to deliver practical operational efficiencies that really matters, especially in relation to areas of governance like traceability. For example, when an animal reaches the grading station, a profile will automatically be set up to record its weight, grade, age, etc.

It is here that an integrated modular software solution like Integreater from SI comes into its own, as it can take this data and automatically check which animals match the specifications required to fulfil daily customer orders. This would include matching multiple customer profiles, designation or destination codes against the available animals.

To summarise, automated grading stations will:

  • deliver a comprehensive view of an abattoir’s operations
  • eliminate most labelling and weighing complications
  • integrate with an abattoir’s existing systems, including bookings, scheduling and traceability
  • automatically check animal specs against customer profiles.

Optimising the value of each animal

When we look at optimising value, we first have to consider the factors impacting the two ways that abattoirs purchase animals. This is done either through a direct relationship with the farmer/producer or from a market, with payment methods differing between the two.

Looking at the market purchase, animals are bought without knowing the weight and quality. So it’s important to understand the profitability of each consignment of animal bought from market. This can be achieved by capturing and processing data at key points in the production process.

It starts with determining the value at the grading stations and then the value after animals have been slaughtered, boned and sold to customers.  As animals are scanned in and out, data can be collected to report on when and where livestock and the meat products from processing them have gone.

So, when combined with our SI margin manager software, the abattoir can ensure that the meat produced from the carcass can be sold at the best possible price and with a minimum of wastage.

Faster payments to producers­­

For the farmers and producers, the time taken to process payment can also be reduced by using our software, as it incorporates the Eurogrid grading system, and can feed 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 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 how we have designed 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.

Real-time all the time

With connected dashboard technology now available, real-time easy to understand data can be delivered either directly to key points in the production process or elsewhere. This means that it’s not essential to be within the abattoir to understand what’s happening. In practical terms customers can now benefit from online visibility of the whole kill process wherever they are, providing them with a complete management overview.

In conclusion, though there is still debate over the benefits of automatic and manual grading, the industry is trending to the increased use of VIA. However, whether VIA is installed or not, management of grading stations 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. If your abattoir is considering an upgrade to existing livestock systems and implementation of further automation, we’re 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.