Solving puzzles

Host: Kadaitcha Pastoral Company
Written by James Christian

We’ve been solving puzzles in the beef industry since the first caveman rolled his first beast and tried to drag it back to his campfire. What’s the best way to use the animal – eat it or use it to breed more? How do you grow it bigger in a shorter amount of time? How do you stop the man in the next cave claiming it for his own?

Nothing’s changed in this day and age. We’ve got expensive machinery, data capturing devices and scientific methods that can be employed in a bid to grow more cattle in less time. Breeding stock can be selected for many things including fertility, meat yield, hide strength and horn length. Traits such as calving ease, tick resistance, temperament and hair colour all play a part in helping determine outcomes for many beef production systems the world over.

Many inventions in the world have come about as a result of someone making a simple suggestion. For example, the upside down squeezable honey container only came about when someone said it took too long for the honey to get to the nozzle – the solution was so obvious, but no one had recognised there was a problem until it was solved!

As has been pointed out by blogs written by me and many others on the Central Station forum there are some incredible inventors in the northern pastoral industry. We’ve all witnessed contraptions that ought to win prizes having been thrown together in desperate situations – tools that rescue Mono shafts dropped down holes, parts that hold graders together for the hundred kilometre rumble back to the shed, and workshop equipment that defies all logic and physics but sure as hell works.

I’ve been wasting lots of time recently thinking about a problem that probably isn’t that important, and probably isn’t too difficult to solve. It’s along these lines…

If you know the eye muscle area and weight of an animal you can predict, with a high level of accuracy, the carcase yield of that animal. Carcase yield can be attributed to the lineage of the animal, so if you know which pair of animals bred it you can determine the quality of the breeders, and you can draft a consignment of cattle for the abattoir that should result in a better cheque.

The current method of calculating eye muscle area of an animal involves catching it in a crush and rubbing an ultrasound scanner over it. This is costly in terms of labour, machinery, and loss of grazing. Another way of calculating carcase yield is to work out the animal’s density and its age. Density can be calculated by weighing it, and running it past a volumetric sensor that calculates how much space it takes up. Knowing the age of an animal when you calculate its density improves the accuracy of the predicted carcase yield phenomenally – it’s not necessarily as simple as expecting all animals dress at, say, 52%.

It is difficult to ascertain how old cattle are in the same way it’s hard to figure out how old people are. Most people know their birthday, and they crack the sads if you incorrectly guess them to be younger or older than they really are. Wrinkles, brittle bones, grey hair and wisdom don’t all necessarily come with age, and despite knowing better we often judge someone’s age based on their outward appearance. The same thing is true with cattle – bigger frame size, worn teeth, protruding hips and long horns don’t necessarily indicate the age of an animal, but they can help us assess an age range.

Given calves don’t speak English the best solution I’ve come up with for determining age is to tag a calf as soon as possible after it’s born. I realise this isn’t practical in the northern beef scene, and it can be months until the mustering crew gets there. Tags that fall out can be problematic here too. Accordingly, here is a list of ways age determination can be done.

A traditional method of aging cattle is mouthing, where the number of adult teeth present indicate a range of ages. This method is very rough and ready and doesn’t provide the required accuracy – a four tooth animal can be anywhere from 28 to 38 months old.

Assessing the ossification of an animal, where cartilage develops into bone, is one method. Ossification places animals within a range (though it’s a tighter fit than mouthing), and is influenced by nutrition. It also requires the animal to be hanging in an abattoir, usually in the chiller, and so isn’t a great way to determine age in the paddock.

Retinal scanning can individually identify animals, humans included. The development of blood vessels on the retina can also be used to determine age. Using a retina scanner for cattle presents problems – how do you keep them still for long enough, where do you position the scanner – but it could be possible.

Muzzle printometry is essentially the same as a fingerprint, but it applies to the nose pad of animals. Dogs, cats and cattle each have unique muzzle prints that can identify their individual owner. Their ages can be determined by assessing the number of and distance between the beads that form the print, and the size of and distance between their nostrils. This, too, puts animals into a range, and is likely to be breed-specific. Capturing the muzzle image and processing it would be relatively easy, but dealing with crossbreeds would potentially be not.

Quite often I find it hard to express everything that’s swimming around in my head – song lyrics, random facts, and who I’d pick for the Wallabies all compete for attention, along with solving puzzles that probably exist in my mind only.

Is working out the carcase yield of an animal while it’s in the paddock an important problem? Probably not, but if you multiply a small gain by a large quantity, you end up with a large gain. Hopefully by typing it out it’ll free up some space and I’ll get a better night’s sleep.

If you come up with a solution by all means get in touch. If you come up with problems you think need solving, don’t!