A Cut Above the Rest: Our contributions to the beef industry

Beef Week 2015 is a chance for our scientists to show off their expertise to the wider industry and the 'steaks are high'.

Beef Week 2015 is a chance for our scientists to show off their expertise to the wider industry and the ‘steaks are high’. Image: Drewe Ferguson

By John Smith

Next week Australia’s beef industry gathers in Rockhampton for their triennial shindig, the industry’s biggest — Beef Australia 2015. Over 85 000 people involved in all aspects of the industry will be there. From farmers and truckers, to agribusiness CEOs and scientists, all will share their ideas on improving the industry, an industry valued at about $6b in exports and a similar amount in domestic consumption.

Being ideas people, our scientists will be among the crowd. They’ll be sharing what we’re working on, and laying out the opportunities for farmers and others. We’ll show how science can be used for a more productive, profitable and sustainable industry.

We’ve been helping the beef industry for as long as we’ve been around. Many of our advances go to show how innovative our farmers are, ready to take on new practices and technologies.

In one end, and out the other: Dung beetles, cow burps, and gut microbes.

Where to start? Perhaps at the end? Did you know we’re the one’s who brought in dung beetles to Australia to deal with, well, the dung? Indeed, and that’s why you’re sucking in air right now and not pesky bush flies.

At the other end we’re helping understand methane emissions from burping cattle, which along with sheep accounts for about 10% of Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions. Using some innovative techniques, including the use of lasers, we can measure the emissions from cattle in different environments and on different diets. We recently figured out the cattle in northern Australia on certain grasses emit about 30% less methane than previously estimated, so we’ve worded up the IPCC to correct the record on Australia’s emission estimates.

We’re also investigating end to end to understand the mechanisms involved with methane production, such as gut microbiota, and looking to the likes of Australia’s grass eating marsupials for ways to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions and improve conversion of feed to meat.

Bovine 2.0: Breeding for the wide brown land

Early in our days it was recognised that the predominant European Bos taurus cattle breeds weren’t really suited to conditions in northern Australia. Heat, ticks and other parasites took their toll. We crossbred the Bos taurus cattle with Bos indicus cattle, from Texas, to produce some improvements in tolerance to the tough conditions. Though many weren’t impressed with us “mongrelising” their European breeds, their minds were changed when our new crossbreeds survived the 1930 drought. Overall, out breeding programs have brought in an estimated $8 billion to the industry.

We teamed up with international partners in the early 2000s to sequence the bovine genome. This genetic research has gone into both BREEDPLAN, Australia’s National Beef Genetic Evaluation Scheme, and GeneSTAR, a test for a range of genetic markers associated with meat quality and desired production traits.

Don’t hurt a cow, man: Cow welfare

We identified a genetic marker for ‘hornlessness’. Horns are a big problem for industry. Horns hurt handlers and other cattle and removing them is hard on both animals and farmers. A poll gene test is now helping farmers select cattle that are much more likely to breed hornless offspring providing both production and welfare benefits.

We also continue to help the industry meet high standards of animal welfare by providing objective assessments of new pain relief options and mitigating the impact of long distance transport both on land and at sea.

McDaisy: taste and tenderness assessments

Of course all of this great performing cattle isn’t much good if it doesn’t taste good so researchers, including our scientists, worked with Meat & Livestock Australia to develop Meat Standards Australia – an objective assessment of meat for eating quality that takes the guess work out of choosing a great cut of meat, be it at the supermarket or restaurant.

Speaking of delicious, we’ve investigated ways of using High Pressure Processing to tenderise otherwise low-value cuts that also provides three times the normal shelf-life. This continues a long tradition of post-farm gate research for the cattle industry. We previously worked on refrigerated and frozen meats for long distance shipping, opening and expanding many export markets.

Mad cow, sane science: Defence against microbes

Along with our research into cold storage, our food safety scientists are using an enhanced understanding of food borne bacteria such as E. coli to ensure continued access to export markets such as the US without elaborate import testing regimes.

Meanwhile, north of Australia we’re helping keep serious biosecurity threats like foot and mouth disease at bay by working with South-East Asian countries to improve their surveillance and response to diseases that could damage our cattle industry and greatly hinder market access. Similarly, in Australia, we’re helping industry and government prepare for the next disease incursion.

As you can see, there is plenty of great Aussie ingenuity that goes into creating some of the most sustainable and salivatory beef in the world. So next time you’re chewing over a beef burger, take some time to ruminate on the contributions we’ve made to the beef industry in the last 90 years.


Cattle industry swings behind safety gate

Cattle yards play a huge part in our local farming industry. In fact, with over 28 million head of cattle grazing on our big brown land, there are more cows in Australia than people.

Not only are our cows big in numbers, they are also big in size. Weighing in at up to 450kg, the risk of our bovine friends causing serious injury, and even death, is very real – to the point where cattle handling is one of the most hazardous jobs in the livestock industry.

That’s why this National Farm Safety Week, we’re revisiting a cattle gate which was purpose built to keep our farmers safe.

Designed by NSW farmer Edward Evans, SaferGate swings away from the operator when an animal charges it. This time two years ago we put the gate through rigorous testing. How did we do this? We thought we’d use our very own ‘crash test cow’. See how it went down:

Since our bovine testing rook place in 2012, SaferGate has hit the market and been installed in over 100 cattle fences around the country.

Australian Agricultural Co’s chief operating officer Troy Setter, said his company had installed some SaferGate units last year, which had already prevented potential injury to one of his livestock staff when a beast struck the gate she was attempting to close.

“If it was a normal gate, she would have been hit and possibly seriously injured, however the SaferGate simply folded away,” Mr Setter said. “Stopping just one injury makes the investment worthwhile,” he said.

Read more about the development of SaferGate or get involved in National Farm Safety Week.


Facebook helps solve weather station mystery in Timor-Leste

By Claire Harris

We often hear that Facebook is used to post inane personal updates and share funny cat photos, but it can help scientists do their work, especially when their trial sites are overseas.

We're working to improve the welfare and income of smallholder farmers in Timor-Leste.

We’re working to improve the welfare and income of smallholder farmers in Timor-Leste.

Recently, one of our CSIRO scientists solved an equipment failure mystery by visiting the project’s Facebook site and spotting the problem, through some photo sleuthing just like a spot the difference puzzle.

Neal Dalgliesh, a CSIRO researcher based in Toowoomba in Queensland, works on a project to increase cattle production in East Timor to improve the welfare and income of smallholder farmers.

The project team established a Facebook group to enable researchers to communicate with each other, as they were located in East Timor, Indonesia and Australia.

As part of the project junior scientists have been learning how to set up weather stations that monitor temperature, radiation and rainfall. Data has been streaming in but, to the frustration of researchers, the weather monitoring stations were not working properly.

“For the last two months I had been mystified as to why a radiation sensor in Timor-Leste had been producing strange results,” said Neal.

“We recently replaced the sensor, assuming it was malfunctioning, only to find that we still had a problem,” he said.

Neal visited the project Facebook site and saw a photo of one of his Timor colleagues posing next to the weather station (on the right in the gallery below).

“Totally serendipitously I browsed the Facebook page, enlarged the photo and lo and behold, found the problem; and more importantly, I immediately knew how to solve it.”

“The was a plastic cap covering the sensor, a rookie error,” he said.

It is easy to forget, as the cap is in place to protect the sensor during transport and needs to be removed when the sensor is set up.

A woman using a laptop in the field.

Communication is getting easier for researchers working in the field.

Neal says that making mistakes and learning from them is an important process and despite his many years as a research scientist, he’s learned a lot from this event.

“Never assume anything, start at the simplest explanation first. And use social media in technical communication,” he said.

“If I hadn’t seen the photo, the problem would have remained unsolved for many months. Plus in the old days, it would have taken a number of days or even weeks to communicate this information back to the field researcher.”

“As a result of rapidly improving wireless access, and Skype, I was able to immediately contact another researcher based in Oecusse and he fixed the problem,” he said.

This cattle project receives funding from ACIAR and is led by the University of Queensland, in partnership with CSIRO, Timor Leste Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, and the National University of East Timor.

Media enquiries: Claire Harris, claire.harris@csiro.au Phone +61 2 9490 8491


What the crash test cow saw

It’s not often our videos go viral but this week our Crash Test Cow clip was watched by over 3,000 people and posted on news sites around the world.

Our 60kg bovine, which was designed to test a new cattle gate called SaferGate, was even deemed more popular than Kylie by the Sydney Morning Herald: ‘Forget Kylie, forget Cate, Australia’s newest international superstar is far more impressive – it’s a Crash Test Cow’.

It seems our cow is becoming quite the celebrity so we thought we’d share some behind the scenes footage taken from the perspective of our cow.


‘Crash test cow’ helps move farmers out of the firing line

A new type of cattle gate aimed at preventing farmer death and injury has completed rigorous testing and development by the CSIRO. SaferGate, designed by farmer and inventor Edward Evans, has been put to the test by a CSIRO-developed ‘crash test cow’.

MEDIA: VNR footage available HERE

Hundreds of farmers and cattle handlers are injured in Australia operating cattle gates. According to latest statistics, 211 farmers were ‘caught, crushed, jammed, or pinched in or between objects’ between 2000 and 2005. Gate incidents also account for 0.5 per cent of deaths among agricultural workers in Australia.

CSIRO’s 60kg test cow, which boasts authentic horns and hide, is designed to simulate the force of a bull or cow charging a cattle gate, used on farms, feedlots, in trucks and abattoirs across Australia.

CSIRO concluded its research last week with a series of simulated crash tests designed to evaluate how SaferGate would perform when charged or kicked by an animal. The tests were conducted by hoisting the cow to a height of five meters before launching it at the gate.

SaferGate is designed by Edward Evans, who had his own leg broken when operating a cattle gate on his farm. Unlike a traditional cattle gate, it swings away from the farmer or operator when a cow charges it, preventing injury or death. This is achieved by a pivot mechanism which splits the gate into two pieces when hit, allowing the part of the gate in front of the operator to fold back on itself and away from them.

In 2011 Mr Evans won the ABC’s New Inventors grand final and was awarded testing and evaluation of the SaferGate by CSIRO. CSIRO scientists have improved the original design by adding a magnet on the SaferGate hinge (the magnetic latch), which allows the gate to remain in a steady position – like a traditional gate – until hit. They have also added a handle on top of the gate that makes it easier for workers on horseback to open the gate.

CSIRO’s improvements have focused on simplifying the gates operation, optimising safety, and ensuring that all parts and mechanisms on the gate can be easily maintained when exposed to harsh weather conditions.

Research Project Leader Peter Westgate, who led the project, said: “We have never been asked to test the performance of a cattle gate before. Our bread and butter is industrial fire, materials and building testing, but knowing how big an issue safety is for farmers and operators made this project as rewarding as it was challenging.

“What our tests have shown us is that the harder and faster the gate is hit, the better it performs, and even though the tests use a 60kg ‘cow’ compared to a real-life 1000kg cow, the result is the same.”

SaferGate inventor and company director Edward Evans said: “With the help of CSIRO, it is great to finally see my vision for SaferGate coming to life. The improvements we have made to the original gate now mean it is even safer and easier operate on foot or on horseback. I hope to see it helping to improve the safety of Australia’s farmers and cattle gate operators very soon.”

SaferGate General Manager Mike Agnew said: “We are very pleased with the work that CSIRO has done and we are now focused on taking their designs forward and getting SaferGate manufactured and on the market. We hope to be selling SaferGate in Australia within the next six months.”

The company is planning to launch the SaferGate initially in Australia and the United States.

Update: If, like us, you were curious to know more about the cow’s role in all of this, then check out this video on what the crash test cow saw.


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