Ultrasounding Cattle

Bonnie LarsonUncategorized 3 Comments

Will and I headed to eastern Iowa last week to ultrasound some cattle. I know I talk about it a lot, but I wasn’t sure if I’ve ever shown you what we do when we ultrasound. So here we go!

First, we clip the hair on each animal in the area we’re going to look at. We look at three places on each animal, so we clip a line from the hip towards the tail so that we can get a rump fat measurement. Then we clip an “x” on the side of the animal so we can look at the animal’s loin muscle.

After we clip the animal, we squirt vegetable oil on the hide. We use oil as a coupling agent for the ultrasound waves to penetrate the hide. You know how a doctor uses that gel-like substance to take an ultrasound on a pregnant woman? Well, it’s the same idea. Only oil is much cheaper than the gel.

After we get the hair clipped and the hide oiled, we place the wand of the ultrasound machine on the area of interest. First, we place the wand horizontally across the animal’s back.

This is the image we get. See those three finger-like projections across the bottom? Those are the animal’s ribs. From the left of the screen to the right, you can see his 11th, 12th, and 13th rib. The loin muscle lies on top of the ribs, and that is the muscle we are evaluating.

Perhaps you’ve heard of USDA Choice beef? Or USDA Prime? Well, that designation comes from the amount of marbling (intramuscular fat) within the loin muscle. The more marbling/fat within the loin muscle, the higher the quality of the carcass. (P.S. The fat within the muscle is the “good fat” you hear people talk about. Which is awesome because it tastes so darn good.)

This image is actually rather low in intramuscular fat as you can see plenty of black intermixed with large streaks of white. A highly marbled carcass would look more like a whiteout blizzard. There would be virtually no black visible and the flecks would be very finely textured.

After taking the longitudinal image, I’ll turn the probe and go more perpendicular to the backbone and take a cross-sectional image of the loin muscle. (It’s the same muscle we looked at for intramuscular fat, just from a different angle.

Have you ever eaten a ribeye steak? Well, that’s what we’re looking at here. The ribeye (loin) muscle is outlined in red.

We also measure a fat thickness from this image, which you can see in green.

Now, I forgot to take a picture of the third image we take, because I am an airhead, but it is another fat thickness measurement from the rump area.

Anyway, we save all of these images on each of the cattle we scan. Then, we upload the images to my sister, Becky, who owns one of the three centralized processing labs in the nation. Here, Beck and her team interpret the images and send the information to the respective breed associations where they can calculate EPDs and other information.

Breeders then use this information for breeding decisions and marketing of their animals. Nearly all of the breeders we work with are seedstock/registered producers. Meaning most of the animals we evaluate will go back to the herd as breeding stock. We’re trying to select for animals with a high-quality carcass as they should produce offspring with a high-quality carcass which equates to a better eating experience for the consumer. Plus, cattle with a higher quality carcass are worth more, so it’s a win-win for the consumer and producer alike.

I have been scanning cattle for about 20 years and I still enjoy it…most days.

I especially enjoy it when my sweetie is able to go along.

He’s my “Man Power” and makes my job so much more enjoyable. Basically, when Will goes along, I just get to stand in my little 3’x3’ area and ultrasound cattle. I don’t have to worry about running the chute or recording the paperwork. I am in the lap of luxury. Plus, Will is a technician himself, so he knows what makes a scan session run smoothly.

And you may wonder why we choose to do this job in the middle of winter when the weather is less than ideal. Well, that is because the cattle must be scanned within a certain age window, which just happens to coincide with winter. Aren’t we lucky!

So there is a quick overview of what we are up to when we say we are out scanning. It really is a fun job as the people work with are so wonderful.

Thanks for coming along on our journey! Hope you have a great day!

Comments 3

  1. Thanks for sharing this story with me, Bonnie. I never really understood what you were doing. It doesn’t look like much fun to this city girl but glad you guys enjoy doing the hard work for us lazy city people.

  2. Back in the “old days” to get that information we followed the animal to slaughter, stood in the cold room among the hanging halves and traced the actual rib eye and fat . Not good if you wanted that animal for breeding stock!

  3. Good Job Bonnie!! I now understand (kinda) what you do when you go scanning. Sure glad you and Will enjoy working together!!

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