UK - Ageing cattle by dentition still has a role to play in cross-checking cattle age despite changes in cattle farming and animal husbandry, a study conducted at a UK abattoir has found.
The premise for the investigation was to plug a thirty year gap in dentition research in which extensive changes in feed, husbandry and the proportion of continental breeds in the UK herd had occurred.
Changes in dental transition in cattle could potentially have damaging implications for the security of the over thirty month’s scheme - introduced after the bovine spongiform encephalopathy scare in 1996.
The regularity of front teeth emergence in cattle has been used to age stock for centuries and the team feared that modern agriculture would have rendered the method obsolete.
"What we found was that farmers and slaughtermen can still use teeth counting as a proxy practical measure for gauging cattle age."
Toby Knowles, Professor of Farming and Food Science at Bristol University Veterinary School explained the statistical approach to the study:
“For each transition stage we produced a bell curve graph. The peak of the curve represents what the most likely age of the animal is.”
Cattle have four pairs of anterior teeth which tend to appear in pairs on a regular time frame, he added.
“The first pair of teeth appears around 22-23 months with the next pair appearing around 30 months. The latter pairs come after the 30 months stage about six months apart. The third pair emerges at 36 months and the final pair around 42 months.”
Professor Knowles said that beyond the four pair stage cattle become difficult to age, hence the reason for focusing on the dental transition time frames of young cattle in slaughterhouses.
Dr Phil Hadley of the English Beef and Lamb Executive (EBLEX) said the findings came as welcome news for a sector recently under scrutiny.
He described teeth inspection as an important part of a ‘belt and braces’ approach to food safety and rigorous slaughterhouse protocol to be used alongside official cattle certification.
“What we found was that farmers and slaughtermen can still use teeth counting as a proxy practical measure for gauging cattle age,” said Dr Handley.
“A passport saying an animal is thirty months old can be double checked and if it appears that the animal has a full set of teeth then the slaughterman can tell something is incorrect.”
As an industry message, this is good news, Dr Handley concluded.
It was thought that increasing numbers of Simmental genetics and other continental breeds may have altered the dental transition stages of UK cattle
Gender and Breed to Breed Comparisons
The study utilised data collected from over 60,000 cattle slaughtered at a large commercial abattoir in south west England between June 2007 and July 2008.
Patterns were identified that suggested dairy breeds develop each pair of teeth faster than beef breeds.
Kevin Whiting, the official veterinarian at the abattoir, hypothesized that this could be due to differences in raising calves and the preference for suckler herds in the UK.
“UK beef calves spend more time suckling, either on their own or sharing a cow,” said Mr Whiting.“This typically lasts three to six months, whereas dairy calves are taken off mothers earlier and then moved into more group fed systems.”
Further patterns showed that females progressed faster in dairy breeds whereas male breeds progressed faster in beef cattle.
This could be due to the preference for female genetics in the dairy sector and for male genetics in beef production, suggested Mr Whiting.
Surprisingly, the data set showed continental beef breeds develop dentition at a slower rate that native breeds.
“We expected continental breeds to progress through dentition stages faster - this was based on them being faster developing breeds,” explained Mr Whiting. “However, this was not so, continental breeds were found to be later than native cows by several weeks.”
But, Mr Whiting stressed that the patterns were not without anomalies, adding that Galloways and Red Devons developed dentition the latest.
Other Breed Findings
- Ayrshires and Guernsey’s developed between three and six weeks later than Friesian/Holsteins and Simmental.
- Herefords, Charolais and South Devon developed teeth marginally later.
- Limousin and Blonde Aquitaine six and eight weeks later than Aberdeen Angus.
- Red Devon and Galloway showed were the slowest to develop – eight to twelve week delay.
Professor Knowles now wishes to utilise the data to develop a computer programme that will calculate probability for animal age by using breed, gender and dentition stage.
Benefits of the study are primarily of a regulatory nature as abattoir inspectors have more up-to-date information to hand.
And while still only a guide, Professor Knowles and his team said the act of ageing by teeth is now a less ‘rough and ready’ measure.
However, the team is aware that in the five years since the project ended, beef and dairy breeding has continued to alter.
Kevin Whiting ventured that the trend for slower grown, pasture-fed beef and the resurgence of native breeds since 2008 could have altered cattle populations in certain areas of the UK.
This means there is scope for further study in the future as agriculture adapts to meet the needs of the environment and consumer trends.
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