Quality-based sheep meat value chains

Program Leader

Professor David Pethick
Murdoch University, Murdoch (WA)
Tel: 08 9360 2246
Email: d.pethick@murdoch.edu.au

To read the latest Program updates click here.

About the Program

Research based on the CRC’s Information Nucleus program has quantified critical control points that determine eating quality and meat yield of different cuts from individual carcases. Understanding the significant effects of genetics on yield and eating quality has led to new breeding values for intramuscular fat (influencing juiciness and flavour), shear-force (a measure of tenderness) and carcase lean meat yield.

Both yield and quality have a profound effect on profitability at every stage in the supply chain.  Additional research is needed to develop a measurement and knowledge system that can be used as the basis for abattoir grading of carcases to underpin value-based trading in sheepmeat supply chains. It is estimated that around 30% of carcases fail to meet optimal specifications and this results in losses through wastage – time spent trimming excess fat and lower prices for downgraded carcases.  These costs are currently absorbed across the full supply chain.

Over the past 15 years there has been little investment in technologies for measuring carcase yield and the CRC’s research has highlighted the inadequacy of existing systems. The CRC’s meat science research findings have re-kindled industry’s desire to move to value-based trading and to develop new measurement technologies to make this possible. Accordingly the Australian Meat Processors Corporation (AMPC) and Meat & Livestock Australia (MLA), working with the CRC meat science researchers, have initiated projects with a number of companies undertaking development of carcase grading technologies. For example the Danish company, Carometec, is developing a prototype sheep carcase hyperspectral camera for imaging the cut surface to determine intramuscular fat. Scotts Technology has also re-designed their x-ray driven cutting system in to a dual x-ray system to accurately measure lean meat yield.  Machine-based grading of individual carcases at line speed to predict value, based on cuts of meat and their eating quality, will be a transformational development for the sheep industry. 

The methods for predicting quality and yield will be developed into a new cuts-based Meat Standards Australia (MSA) grading system.  The credibility of MSA-certification will be important in gaining widespread acceptance.

A new cuts-based grading and MSA certification for sheepmeat will have implications beyond the lamb industry.  The research will be extended to establish a new science-based system for grading cuts from larger lean carcases (>25kg) that currently fall outside lamb specifications, particularly for some domestic markets, and for grading cuts of yearling Merino carcases that are currently classified as ‘mutton’.

Implementation will initially occur through commercial scale trials in Participant supply chains with benefits resulting from a higher proportion of carcases conforming with processor/retail specifications, better feedback of grading information to breeders and producers and less wastage through trimming excess fat.  Improved value of larger carcases and yearling Merinos that are currently under-valued in terms of consumer assessment of eating quality will also deliver benefits for the supply chains.

Program Structure

The program is organised into two parts:

  • R2.1:  ‘New meat grading tools’ focuses on calibration and implementation of a new cuts-based grading system for lambs.
  • R2.2:  ‘New production definition’ is designed to extend the use of the new cuts-based grading system for use in grading non-lamb carcases such as yearling carcases and large lambs >25kg.

Both parts contribute to improved efficiencies in the supply chains associated with this Program as described in U2.1 for delivery of new quality based sheepmeat value chains. 


Specific objectives of the Program are summarised as follows:

  1. Develop prediction algorithms for consumer based eating quality and lean meat yield (by muscle region) using both genetic and phenotypic (carcase grading) information residing in the Information Nucleus data base of approximately 10,000 lambs with full genetic and phenotypic information. This will be undertaken in close collaboration with the genetics team in Program 3 and include the development of genomic predictions for consumer based eating quality.
  2. Develop and calibrate at least 2 new machine based carcase grading tools with final validation in at collaborating lamb processing plants (= at least 50% of the national lamb slaughter) using established industry resource flocks.
  3. Develop a commercial cuts based Meat Standards Australia lamb carcase grading model (MSA Sheep meats) that predicts the eating quality (fail 2*, good every day 3*, better than every day 4*, premium 5*) of up to 4 cut x cook combinations from the carcase.
  4. Provide flexible decision support information to translate carcase grading and genetic prediction into carcase and/or genetic specifications that will underpin company (processor and retail) brands and their value.
  5. Develop an industry wide standard for managing and auditing carcase grading.
  6. Develop feedback systems to lamb producers using Meat & Livestock Australia’s Livestock Data Link and MSA program (www.mla.com.au).
  7. Yearling Merino production system with slaughter at 18 months to 2 years of age providing a combination of income from wool and meat.
  8. Lamb carcases > 25 kg that are being produced in increasing numbers associated with genetic improvement for growth rate, carcase weight and leanness.


The Program will deliver a measurement and feedback system to underpin value-based trading.  A target of 10% of lambs slaughtered moving from ‘outside’ to ‘within’ specifications is valued at between 20c and 50c/kg (carcase weight) for producers and 50c/kg for processors.  Use of a cuts-based grading system will extend MSA-grading to value larger carcase and yearling Merino carcases according to consumer-defined eating quality.  The benefits from these changes will be reduced processing costs ($0.16/kg carcase) and increased value of yearling Merino carcases by an estimated $21.60 per carcase compared to current value if graded as ‘mutton’.  The additional costs of value-based trading and meeting specifications include cost of abattoir measurement and feedback systems ($0.25/head) additional on-farm monitoring ($0.85/head) and additional feed costs to finish 1/3 of yearling Merinos (average of $6.93/head). There will also be additional costs of preparing specialised cuts of larger carcases ($1.10/hd). Through objective grading of carcases in at least one abattoir, benefits start in year 2 for processors and year 3 for producers.  Benefits from cuts-based grading for yearling Merino and larger leaner lamb carcases will start in year 3 and new delicatessen-style products will start in year 4.

AMPC, MLA and Sheep CRC Fact Sheets

The CRC Meat Science Program aims to develop new technology and knowledge to underpin lean meat yield improvement of high quality lamb and sheep meat for domestic and international consumers. A series of fact sheets have been developed by Australian Meat Processing Corporation (AMPC), Meat & Livestock Australia (MLA)  and the Sheep CRC.

To download these fact sheets click here.


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