Cattle Today

Cattle Today

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by: Stephen B. Blezinger

The old saying goes “the customer is always right.” Time after time, business people find this to be true, often at great expense. No matter how much we want to tell that customer what he or she should want, sooner or later they will come back and tell you what they really desire mainly by how they use their checkbook.

In the beef industry it has taken us a long time for this light to come on. As producers we have long taken the position of “this is what we have produced, now you buy it.” Consumers have long ago figured out that they have a choice and if they don't like what we're producing (our beef) they'll find another alternative. We've learned this the hard way. The beef industry is beginning to realize that in order to effectively market it's product, this product has to be of high, consistant quality that matches the value we place on it. This quality and value, however has to match the customer's PERCEPTION of it.

As beef producers we've had to realize a few things:

1) We're not in the cattle business - we're in the beef or more specifically, the food, business.

2) We have to produce a quality product and we have to do it efficiently.

3) We don't dictate what goes into the market, the market tells us what it wants and what it will pay for.

4) The new realizations in the industry affect ALL beef producers - packer, feedlot, stocker operator, commercial cow/calf producer, purebred or seedstock producer.

This is the focus of this article and the one that will follow -- the role the purebred producer and more specifically, the cattle breeder has in the beef industry in 2001. Recognizing this role will be the key to profitability and perhaps even more importantly, survival. In this article and the one that will follow I'm attempting to make some observations that may shed some light on these issues. The probability is high that comments will be made that many producers may not like. Nonetheless, they need to be said.

Give'em What They Want

In the United States there are about 80 breeds of cattle give or take a few. This means there will be certain breeds that will come very close to fitting what the current beef industry wants. This also means there will be any number that will not. Unfortunately, many breeders have found out that they may fall into this catagory. I have had the occasion a number of times to be part of conversations where this situation has been lamented. Determining what it will take to turn the ship around is more complex.

Over recent years I've had numerous occasions to consult for various breeders on both their nutrition and management programs. I had the opportunity to be involved with one breed's steer feed-out program that was held in Kansas a couple of years ago. While the performace in terms of gains and conversions was quite good, the carcass performance was not. Because of circumstances such as this, the perception of a number of breeds by feedyard managers and packers alike is not terribly good although in many cases it may be somewhat unjustified. Be that as it may, these perceptions are what shape a great deal of the industry and have a significant effect on marketing. This is true not only of cattle entering the beef production “pipeline” but the demand for specific breeds and their use for bulls and replacement females.

So What is it That They Want?

Many breeds have to aks themselves this question: “What changes will we have to make in order to remain competetive in the future and have a significant place in the beef industry?” For some breeders this may be quite a challenge. You have to consider that the primary product that purebreed breeders have to sell is genetics. Are the genetics in your breed/herd in demand in the industry? Unfortunately, in many cases the answer is no. To determine how this problem can be addressed we have to look at what the industry considers of value. Some factors might include:

1) A genetic base that will produce a calf that will gain weight efficiently and that will produce a quality carcass.

2) A genetic base that will produce a calf that, as it goes through the marketing pipeline does not suffer significant losses of value from stress, excessive morbidity (sickness) and mortality (deathloss).

Let's consider each of these. In the current marketing programs found in the industry, especially at the level at which cattle are sold out of the feedlot to a packing house, we are seeing an increasing incidence of cattle being priced once they have been delivered to the packer, slaughtered and hung on the rail. Cattle are then priced on the “Formula” or “Grid” based on what the meat is actually worth. Cattle that routinely produce a more profitable carcass because of the greater value of their carcass. In other words they produce larger amounts of better quality meat.

What does this say about a given breed or herd? For one thing, it tells us that these animals have to produce progeny or be used in a cross breeding program that will enhance rather than detract from the value of the calf. This means we have to select bulls and cows which accomplish this task. This also means that we have to evaluate existing animals stringently in order to determine which individuals or families fit and which do not and select accordingly.

Because of the importance of the concept of carcass quality and the grading systems are somwhat complex, I wanted to take some time to discuss these factors before we go much farther.

Beef Grading

There are two types of beef grades in the United States--quality grades and yield grades. Beef carcasses may carry a quality grade, a yield grade or both a quality and yield grade. Quality grades indicate expected palatability or eating satisfaction of the meat; yield grades are estimates of the percentage of boneless, closely trimmed retail cuts from the round, loin, rib and chuck.

Quality Grading

Quality grade standards have been established by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). The USDA beef quality grades include Prime, Choice, Select, Standard, Commercial, Utility, Cutter and Canner. Carcasses may be merchandised as ungraded beef and are usually those that do not grade Choice, Prime or Select. They generally are termed "No Roll" beef by the industry, because a grade stamp has not been rolled on the carcass.

Maturity and marbling are the major considerations in beef quality grading. Maturity is an estimation of the physiological age of the carcass. There are five degrees of maturity designated by A, B, C, D and E.

The quality grading chart (Figure 1) shows that carcasses of A and B maturity are eligible for the Prime, Choice, Select, Standard and Utility quality grades. Older carcasses of C, D and E maturity qualify only for the Commercial, Utility, Cutter and Canner grades.

 Figure 1. Relationship Between Marbling, Maturing and Carcass Quality Grade*.

*       Assumes that firmness of lean is comparably developed with the degree of marbling    
         and that the carcass is not a "dark cutter."
**     Maturity increases from left to right (A through E).
***   The A maturity portion of the figure is the only portion applicable to bullock carcasses.

Degree of maturity, or physiological age as determined from bone and lean maturity, may not be the same as the actual age of the animal in months or years. However, approximate chronological age groupings for maturity degrees are as follows:




9 - 30 months


30 - 42 months (2 1/2-3 1/2 years)


42 - 72 months (3 1/2-6 years)


72 - 96 months (6 - 8 years)


over 96 months (over 8 years)

Maturity is estimated visually by cartilage ossification (hardening of cartilage into bone), rib bone shapes, and lean color and texture. Cartilage ossification of the split backbone is useful in determining carcass maturity.

Marbling, the flecks of fat in the lean, is the other major consideration in quality grading. Marbling is evaluated visually in the rib eye muscle between the 12th and 13th ribs. Although it contributes only slightly to meat tenderness, marbling probably contributes to the palatability traits of juiciness and flavor. Ten degrees of marbling range from Very Abundant to Practically Devoid. Figure 2 provides a limited example of the differences in marbling in lean beef tissue. As you can see there is significant variation between the amounts of fat than exist from one carcass to another.

Figure 2.  Examples of Marbling in Lean Beef Tissue

Very Abundant          Slightly Abundant              Small


Yield Grades

USDA yield grades identify the "quantity" or "cutability" differences among carcasses. Yield grades are designated as 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5, and are a numerical representation of the expected percentage of closely trimmed, boneless retail cuts from the round, loin, rib and chuck. This percentage of retail cuts is the carcass cutability.

Relationship of Yield Grades and Cutability

Yield Grade

% Boneless, Closely Trimmed Retail Cuts
From the Round, Loin, Rib and Chuck


52.6 - 54.6


50.3 - 52.3


48.0 - 50.0


45.7 - 47.7


43.3 - 45.4

The terms "yield" and "yield grade" should not be confused. "Yield" alone means dressing percentage (carcass weight divided by live weight multiplied by 100), and is not directly related to yield grades or cutability.

Carcass factors used to calculate yield grade are:

Adjusted fat thickness. External fat is measured at the 12th rib perpendicular to the outside fat at a point 3/4 the length of the rib eye (longissimus) muscle. This measurement may be adjusted by the grader to reflect unusual fat distribution in the carcass. Special attention is given to fat deposition in the cod or udder, rump, inside round, flank, lower rib, plate and brisket areas. External fat is the most important yield grade factor. As external fat increases, the percentage of retail cuts decreases.

Percentage of Kidney, Pelvic and Heart Fat (KPH). This is a subjective estimate of the amount of fat surrounding the kidney knob, and fat in the pelvic and thoracic (heart) areas as a percentage of the carcass weight. As the percentage of KPH fat increases, the percentage of retail cuts decreases. Percentage KPH fat normally ranges from 1.0 to 4.0 percent.

Rib Eye Area. The longissimus muscle is measured at the 12th rib by using a grid expressed in square inches, or a compensating polar planimeter, which measures a rib eye tracing. Rib eye area is an indicator of carcass muscling; as rib eye area increases, retail cut yield increases.

Hot Carcass Weight. Generally, as carcass weight increases, the percentage of retail cuts decreases slightly due to increased fat deposition. If only chilled carcass weight is available, it can be adjusted to hot carcass weight by multiplying by 1.02 to correct for the evaporative weight loss of the carcass in the cooler.

So What Does all This Mean?

From this perspective of animal value, these grading systems are used to define what the meat produced from a given animal is worth. Meat packers use formulas they have developed to determine what they will pay for a given animal which has a specific grade. Based on this system and the trend toward pricing cattle using this system we are finding that cattle, with the genetics to support the more valuable grades bring significantly more money than those which do not. Subsequently those cattle will be in greater demand by fattle feeders as well as other producers down the marketing chain. Eventually it gets back to the seedstock producer and has an effect on his markets creating increased or decreased demand depending on how his cattle perform. If a given breed historically does not grade well the demand for this type of animal by the market will decrease.

This is one reason why carcass and performance testing by the various breeds is so important. This is also why bull testing is important and not only the bulls alone but their offspring as well. When one animal can affect the genetic make-up of so many others, the impact is profound.


We can't just market a given breed or herd based on what we have done in the past. If we do not look to the future and see how we can have a place in the market and meet their requirements, the outlook is not too bright.

In the next issue we'll continue this discussion and look at other aspects of production and performance which affect perceived value on an animal, bloodline or breed.

Dr. Steve Blezinger is a management and nutritional consultant with an office in Sulphur Springs, TX. He may be contacted at P.O. Box 653 Sulphur Springs, TX 75482, by phone at (903) 885-7992 or by e-mail at


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