Birdshot may be about the last thing you ponder when considering the health of your beef cattle herd, but a carcass marred by birdshot could become a “black eye” for you and the entire industry.

“We’re making a strong effort to educate ranchers on the problem with buckshot or birdshot,” said Trevor Caviness, president of Caviness Beef Packers in Hereford and Amarillo. “We’ve started notifying suppliers, ranchers and sale barns that we’ve discovered buckshot in the harvest and fabrication process. It’s an effort to give ranchers a heads-up on the problem, an informational tool that we hope will help solve or reduce the problem.”

Caviness Beef Packers processes more than 4 million pounds of beef products weekly, but if a single quarter-pound beef patty escapes with one lead pellet, that’s too many.

“It’s a zero tolerance,” Caviness said.

Sure, many a rancher has had that stubborn cow or bull that won’t budge out of a thicket or the back 40. A small number may have considered scaring the cantankerous cattle with a little birdshot as a herding tool.

“That’s obviously not the right thing to do,” Caviness said. “Something like that can make ranchers lose credibility in the food safety arena.”


To prevent contaminating carcasses with lead shot, obviously, never use a shotgun to gather cattle.

Also, educate hunters about the potential safety concerns associated with adulterated carcasses and work with them to prevent accidental shootings. When possible, remove cattle from hunting areas to prevent accidents.

While no one knows the origins of lead shot in cattle, a likely source is bird hunters whose shotgun blasts spray pellets beyond the target. Ranches with hunting leases may see more problems than others. Whatever the case, packers like Caviness and their customers are striving to “put on the safety” when it comes to shotguns shooting cattle.

Caviness said a large buyer of the company’s beef, a major ground beef processor, notes that overall, there is a greater incidence of buckshot found in beef during certain months of the years. For example, the largest percentage of occurrences are in May and June during branding season and when dry cows and old cows are culled. November, a time when cows are culled before winter and open cows are sold, also sees a higher number. March, September, October and December see the least lead shot detection.

Since foreign material is detected after cattle are bought and harvested, packers suffer the economic consequences.

Hereford cattle birdshot
photo courtesy of TSCRA

“It’s a cost to the packer because we have, in most cases, already paid for the animal before we find the lead shot in the carcass,” Caviness said. “Grinding machines can be damaged. We must spend extra time and labor, which reduces our efficiency, but we are determined to isolate these and other situations to keep that adulterated beef out of our nation’s food supply.”

As part of its beef safety program, Caviness inspectors closely inspect each carcass for foreign matter. Those carcasses are removed from the processing line and further evaluated. To increase the safety process, Caviness has invested heavily in equipment to monitor every aspect of its product.

Carcass round and chuck are moved by conveyor and pass through sensors that detect fat content as well as bone, metal and other foreign matter. Individual lots of beef that contain metal are identified, isolated, further tested and removed from processing or condemned.

“Nothing is more important to our company than food safety,” Caviness said. “We are among companies that are investing millions into technology to help eliminate this problem. We are committed to getting a safe meat supply to the public.”

Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association (TSCRA) was formed in 1877 and is the largest and oldest livestock trade association based in Texas. TSCRA has more than 17,000 beef cattle operations, ranching families and businesses as members. These members represent approximately 50,000 individuals directly involved in ranching and beef production who manage  4 million head of cattle on 76 million acres of range and pasture land primarily in Texas and Oklahoma but also throughout the Southwest.

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article by The Cattleman magazine
Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association

photo by Liberty Campbell