by: Wes Ishmael

“Just tell us what you want. What's the target?”

That request was made decades ago to a noted executive from one of the major beef packers. The requestor, visibly frustrated, was one of a group of seedstock producers. If memory serves, the central theme of the meeting was the dog-eared debate about whether carcass quality or yield pays more over the long haul.

“The target is the same as it has been for at least the past 30 years,” was the reply from the packer man, who was also visibly frustrated. “We want Choice, Yield Grade 2 cattle.”


Certainly, lots of things are different these days, everything from instrument grading, to the creation of new beef cuts and convenience products, to more precise valuation of cattle for specific value attributes, at least as part of branded and value-added programs. In the great scheme of things, though, achieving the aforementioned target would please more packers than not: a level of quality that should reduce unsatisfactory eating experiences and enough carcass yield to make worthwhile providing the experience, notwithstanding the fact that the current yield grading system is plumb outdated. Some would say the same for Quality Grade.

Despite such a broad and static target for so long, still too many cattle end up too far from the bulls eye.

Consider the most recent checkoff-funded National Beef Quality Audit (NBQA). Of the $49.06/carcass in lost quality opportunity, 81 percent stems from Quality Grade ($15.75), Yield Grade ($12.91) or carcass weight ($10.88). The latter two are worse than in the previous NBQA in 2011. These lost opportunities are derived from compliance with consensus target consists established by packers, retailers and restaurateurs. In other words, ideally, what is the ideal mix of Quality Grade, Yield Grade and such across the industry?

For Quality Grade, the target was five percent Prime, 70 percent Choice (equally divided between Low Choice and the upper two-thirds of Choice) and 25 percent Select. For Yield Grade (YG), the targets were 10 percent YG1, 45 percent YG2, 40 percent YG3, five percent YG4. For carcass weight: 20 percent at 600-800 lbs.; 30 percent at 801-900 lbs.; 50 percent at 901-1,000 lbs.

“While the industry is improving the quality of beef being produced, quality is being accompanied by an increase in size and fatness,” according to the 2016 NBQA. “The mean USDA Yield Grade in 2016 was 3.1, increasing slightly compared to the mean yield grade of 2.9 in 2011. More significantly, however, the frequencies of YG 3, 4 and 5 in 2016 increased compared to 2011. The largest percentage of carcasses (29.9 percent) was Choice YG 3. During the same time period, the percentage of carcasses grading Choice or Prime increased 10 percent to 71 percent.

Besides the significant increase in Choice and Prime carcasses, the NBQA notes that positives include a high mobility score for cattle entering packing plants and the fact that the number of blemishes, condemnations and other attributes that impact animal value remain small, according to a synopsis by the Beef Board.

The NBQA has been conducted every five years for the past 25 years. It and subsequent industry goals and tactics from each is one reason why injection site blemishes are no longer the major problem they once were, why average Quality Grade increased and excess fat declined.

Incidentally, the value of lost opportunities in quality issues was $63.27/carcass in 1991. It declined to $47.30 in 2011 before edging higher to the most recent $49.06. Keep in mind that comparing dollar values between audits is a dicey business since market conditions affecting value vary widely between audits. Instead the dollar values provide a relative gauge of progress over time. Individually, each audit also provides a glimpse of the dollars at stake.

Based on approximately 24.2 million steers and heifers slaughtered last year, that about $1.2 billion worth of lost opportunity, due only to the specific quality attributes highlighted by the audit: Quality Grade, Yield Grade, carcass weight, hides and branding, offal/carcass condemnation.

“Among areas for possible improvement, are the fact that there was more bruising (although bruising was less severe) and the fact that more than 30 percent of livers harvested did not pass inspection and were condemned,” according to the report.

Although not stated this way, from the following, you could be forgiven for believing that improvement would come simply from beef packers placing a higher priority on consumer eating satisfaction with beef.

“The eating satisfaction quality factor, which was primarily defined as ‘customer satisfaction' by all sectors, was ranked second by all marketing sectors except packers, who ranked lean, fat, and bone second,” according to the report. “Compared to the 2011 audit, a greater percentage of companies were willing to pay a premium for guaranteed quality attributes. However, overall these companies were willing to pay lower average premiums than the companies interviewed in 2011. While not a single packer listed eating satisfaction as a ‘must-have,' 55 percent said they would be willing to pay an average premium of 10 percent if it could be guaranteed.”

Good grief.

Perhaps packers didn't rank eating satisfaction because they believe it's a given. If that's the case, then they should eat more random samples of what they harvest and process because spectacular eating failures routinely still exist, from steaks to ground beef.

Yes, it's difficult to guarantee eating satisfaction. For one thing, no single product will satisfy everyone. And, if carcasses fail, whatever satisfaction test is applied, who's to blame and who's to foot the bill? Like a judge picking a steer to win the show that the crowd considers too this or too that, when those are the only types in the show, packers deal the proverbial cards they're dealt.

Testing tied to such assurances is expensive, too, things like conducting Warner-Bratzler shear force tests on core sample from carcasses. Some companies go further than that in guaranteeing eating satisfaction on specific premium branded products. But, when beef is far and away the highest priced animal protein available to consumers in volume, surely consumers should expect to enjoy eating any beef that is the result of federal inspection and grading.

Why it Matters

As mentioned, the NBQA offers the industry an invaluable report card of sorts, documenting how well the beef product served direct customers and their customers during a specific window of time.

This gauge also offers individual producers a compass. For instance, based on the consensus of the recent audit, the target is 55 percent YG 1-2 cattle (95 percent YG 1-3), with 75 percent that grade Choice or higher and hang carcasses that weigh 600-1,000 lbs.

Did someone say the target was Choice 2?

Calves that produce feeder cattle, which produce fed cattle that leave carcasses falling outside those parameters are worth less to buyers because they have less value to customers.

For someone selling calves at weaning or soon after, even for those selling feeder cattle, subsequent management can alter carcass quality, carcass weight, yield and the incidence of offal and carcass condemnations. But they'll never have a chance to hit the broad target without enough muscling and inherent marbling ability to start with.

Dan Kniffen, owner of Windy Butte Ranch and an assistant professor at Penn State University shares some insight about the importance of the NBQA to individual producers and to the industry, collectively, in a video that can be found with the NBQA at

“It gives us the facts and figures to talk to the American consumer and now the global consumer,” Kniffen explains. He emphasizes the NBQA provides science-based information the industry can use to truthfully tell the story of beef quality and wholesomeness to consumers.

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