by: Miranda Reiman

In this day and age, would you buy a sedan that only got 13 miles per gallon?

Seems a little absurd now, but that was average in the 1970s. It really shows how far the auto industry has come in improving fuel economy.

That same decade, a farmer would be pleased with a corn crop that binned 80 or 90 bushels per acre. Today, that's a disaster in most places.

But if you think those gains are impressive, take a moment to think of what you, America's beef producers, have accomplished.

Cattlemen used to brag about their cattle reaching “more than 60 percent Choice.” In the last couple of years, USDA harvest reports show the national average was hovering near 65 percent Choice or better.

Nobody brags about just being average, especially not if they sell on a grid. In the upper Midwest, you're held to a fairly high standard if you want to beat plant averages and find yourself in the premiums.

Hitting 60 percent Choice won't cut it.

When premium Choice branded programs emerged, it was really something to get 15 percent or 20 percent that reached those marbling levels in commercial cattle. That's when it was incidental production, or luck of the draw, that landed those cattle in branded programs.

Today, some cattlemen have made these upper-end markets their goal. They've built business plans that count on it. Some scoff at a number like 50 percent, thinking if 100 percent fit a premium program, just imagine the financial reward.

Beyond that, there's a tier of producers who look to the highest level.

Take Missouri cattleman John Osborn, who routinely sends in loads that reach more than 50 percent Prime, and he's still looking to improve. The industry average is three percent. What was once thought of as a happy accident, one or two in a pen, is now a logical target with premiums of $200 or more per head.

As students return to class each fall, many are assessed on what they remember from last year or on what they already know. It's an evaluation to find their benchmark level going into the school year.     

The beef industry has a similar measure that you've surely heard about this summer: The National Beef Quality Audit. The Checkoff-funded report tells us how far we've come and how far we have to go on consumer acceptance and meeting beef demand.

Done every five years since 1991, the 2011 results tell us we need more quality. Consumers called for five percent Prime and 30 percent premium Choice. Actual production levels for all beef in those categories during 2011 were two percent and 20 percent, 14 points short of expectations.

To some, that's inspiring. It's an objective to reach toward. To others, it's a little bit depressing. We've been working for 20 years and we still aren't quite where we want to be?

But the hard data tells the positive story: The 1996 audit revealed the lowest carcass quality of all reports at 49 percent Choice and Prime, but it's been an upward trend since then. Making stops at 51 percent in 2001 and 55 percent in 2006, before settling at 61 percent in 2011.

That's some improvement, and unlike the auto business, no government mandate said you had to make it. The consumers asked for it and you responded.

That's an accomplishment worth basking in, and celebrating – with a T-bone, perhaps?

Next time in Black Ink® Steve Suther will look at what to do after weaning. Questions? Call toll-free at 877-241-0717 or e-mail

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