Heather Conrow performs a carcass ultrasound

MU Extension livestock specialist Heather Conrow performs a carcass ultrasound procedure, which can help producers learn about carcass qualities before harvesting the animal and make selection decisions sooner.

Carcass ultrasound technology can help producers gather data about their livestock now and for the future.

Heather Conrow, a University of Missouri Extension livestock specialist, says ultrasound in cattle provides a look at some key areas.

“For carcass ultrasound we look at ribeye area, intramuscular fat, as well as rump fat,” she says. “We can determine which animals are more likely to have offspring with those qualities.”

Conrow, who is based in Howard County, Missouri, says these indicators help show how much meat will come from an animal as well as the marbling and overall quality.

Carole Knight, an agriculture and natural resources agent for the University of Georgia Extension, says carcass ultrasound technology can be beneficial for producers.

“The live animal carcass ultrasound, what it allows producers to do is to collect carcass data and basically provide better selection tools using carcass info on live animals, rather than harvest them,” she says.

Before, producers had to harvest the progeny of a sire to get the results.

“You’re talking potentially years to determine if the sire was passing on those carcass traits that we’re looking for,” Knight says.

The ultrasound technology saves time and money.

“One, it’s cheaper,” Knight says. “And two, it’s quicker.”

The cost of performing a carcass ultrasound can vary, although Conrow says it can be as low as $15 a head.

For pigs, Conrow says ultrasound scanners are looking at loin eye area and back fat.

She says people also use the technology at county fairs, so they can determine a carcass class without actually having to harvest the animals.

With carcass ultrasound information, producers can make management decisions. Conrow says the producers can use it to determine whether to keep the animals and how to breed them, how to market the animals, and whether to cull them if the results were not good.

The ultrasound information is also helpful in making genetic decisions and determining expected progeny differences.

“Those numbers are used to calculate EPDs,” Conrow says. “The phenotypic data is used to back up DNA results.”

Identifying these good traits can pay off in future generations.

“Carcass traits are moderately inheritable,” Conrow says.

The ideal time to perform the carcass ultrasound scan can vary, although Knight says the Ultrasound Guidelines Council has members from purebred breed associations who give recommendations for the best time for scanning their breeds. For cattle, it’s usually when they are about a year old.

The technology is being used by more producers.

“The technology has been around for several decades,” Conrow says. “Use of the technology is increasing, along with collection of DNA samples.”

Knight says the technology really “came to the forefront” for cattle producers in the late 1990s. In the early 2000s, she traveled around collecting carcass ultrasound data.

“I stayed busy,” she says.

Knight says a lot of seedstock producers use carcass ultrasound, especially the larger producers.

“When a technician comes and collects data,” she says, “the purebred breeder will submit that data to their breed association. It goes into producing those EPDs.”

The EPDs become more valuable as a comparative tool, she says. The raw data gathered on farms can be impacted by management factors like nutrition, so the overall database of information provides a fuller picture. But even the individual farm results can be helpful.

“Within your herd you can use it to see if you’re making progress,” Knight says. “If improving carcass traits is on your list of things to do, absolutely it would help you see if you’re getting better, larger carcasses and improving your quality.”

Conrow says it is important to not select only for a single trait, although she says consistently utilizing carcass ultrasound technology to look at multiple traits can pay off over time.

“The biggest benefit long-term is the improvement of the genetics of your herd,” she says.

Knight says it is a good idea to use a certified technician and gather some information first.

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Ben Herrold is Missouri field editor, writing for Missouri Farmer Today, Iowa Farmer Today and Illinois Farmer Today.