Sorting cattle helps eliminate outliers in a pen, but the extra effort may be rewarded by higher quality grades, too.
A study by Certified Angus Beef LLC (CAB) shows the more sorts the better the grades in most cases.
“Our data says those cattle that were sorted three or more times have much higher CAB acceptance rates than cattle that were just sold as one group,” says Gary Fike, beef cattle specialist for the company.
From 2005 to 2006, CAB tracked data from its 63 licensed feedlots in 15 states (see table). Cattle that were marketed together had an average CAB acceptance rate of 23.3 percent. Cattle in two sort groups improved to 29.6 percent, compared to those sorted three times or more at 33.9 percent.
That 10-percentage-point increase means more dollars for the seller.
“That's huge,” Fike says. “In a 100-head pen, that's 10 more head that make CAB. You're talking about roughly $40 per head or $400 extra.”
Marbling is the most limiting factor in Angus-influence cattle that don't qualify for the brand.
Dan Loy, Iowa State University animal scientist, says it makes sense that sorting can enhance overall marbling in a pen. Although there is little research into its impact on the share of USDA Choice grades, those would likely follow CAB acceptance-rate trends.
“Sorting allows you to feed the remainder slightly longer than you would have otherwise,” Loy explains. “It's a net benefit, but not the largest benefit.”
The main reason for sorting is to avoid outliers that lead to discounts in grid marketing.
“You're trying to minimize problems by marketing sooner those cattle that may have issues with over-fatness or heavyweight carcasses,” he says.
Kansas cattle feeder Allan Sents says he uses multiple marketings for both reasons.
“We try to optimize the return on the cattle,” says the manager of McPherson County Feeders, Marquette, Kan. “We do that by minimizing discounts from Yield Grade 4s and heavyweights, while giving more cattle the opportunity to advance in quality grade. We maximize that grade potential by feeding the light end a little longer.”
Although it can be hard to measure, increased feed efficiency could be another benefit.
“If we can get cattle out before we get them over-finished, that's going to help our live performance, our efficiency,” Sents explains.
Loy says labor and facilities are the two main obstacles to routine sorting finished cattle.
At McPherson, a 9,000-head CAB-licensed feedlot, pen layout and design are essential to success, Sents says. Several years ago he built four 40-head pens with concrete-floors and near the office.
“That has made it really workable for us to hold small groups from week to week,” he says. “We're less likely to tie up bigger pens with small groups of cattle. When we sort cattle, we may also move some of them to a smaller pen, so our wide variety of pen sizes is an advantage.”
McPherson's regular pens vary in capacity from 40 to 200 head.
Feedlots that don't have such flexibility may not maximize pen space all the time, but Fike says it's not usually for long periods of time.
“If cattle aren't too far apart in weight starting out, unused pen space shouldn't be a big deal,” he says. Just spreading marketing groups by as little as 14 to 21 days could mean an improvement.
Loy suggests starting out with the method developed through Iowa's Tri-County Steer Carcass Futurity.
“Market a first draft when half the cattle are at approximately 0.4 to 0.5 inches of fat thickness, slightly more if you're targeting higher carcass quality,” he says. “Then feed the rest of the cattle an extra five weeks.”
Feeders can begin that way, Loy says, and then adapt the program to fit their needs.
Whether by horseback or on foot, the last key is to have capable sorters.
“We have some people who are very familiar with sorting and do a good job that way,” Sents says. “That's a big help.”