The good news is that the carcass target for the bulk of beef production in the United States—Choice, Yield Grade 2—hasn't changed for better than two decades. The bad news is that apparently the industry's ability or willingness to hit that target with more cattle has.
Compare the 2000 National Beef Quality Audit to the one conducted in 1995 and the percentage of fed cattle yield grading 2.49 or better had declined 4.4 percent to 27.5 percent; cattle yield grading 2.99 and better had declined 8.3 percent to 49.6 percent. At the same time YG 3 cattle increased 4.4 percent to 38.6 percent, and YG 4 cattle increased 3.3 percent to 10.4 percent. While the average carcass weight increased almost 40 lb. between the two studies, the mean quality grade remained Select.
Likewise, Glen Dolezal, Director of New Technology Applications for Excel, the nation's second largest beef packer, explained to producers at the recent Beef Improvement Federation (BIF) convention that in 2000 1.7 percent of all the carcasses flowing through their plants were the unwanted Yield Grade 4-5. In 2001 that figure grew to 3.3 percent. Last year it was 5.0 percent.
The Stationery Target
For perspective, Dolezal describes Excel's overall carcass target this way: Quality Grade of Select or better; Yield Grade of 3.4 or better (based on Excel's Vision Grading system); ribeye of 10.0-15.9 sq. in.; a slice sheer score of less than 22 kg; and a carcass weight of 600-950 lb.; and no outliers. This is in addition to beef quality assurance and safety practices prior to arriving at the packinghouse.
With subtle variations, that same target fits the other major packers; combined the top four harvest just over 80 percent of the nation's fed cattle each year.
Also presenting at BIF, Tom Field, a professor of animal science from Colorado State University says both a mountain of research and practical experience underscore the validity of the industry's 70-70-0 adopted several years ago, which was really just a new way to describe an age-old goal. Specifically, the notion is that each segment could be served most profitably, individually and collectively, if 70 percent of the fed cattle graded Choice or better, if 70 percent of them were a Yield Grade 2 or better and if none of the cattle fell out of the bounds of acceptability: neither too heavy (+950 lb.) nor too light (600 lb.); neither too fat (Yield Grade 4 or worse) nor too lean (Quality Grade Standard or worse); as well as not being too old (hardbones) or cut too dark, etc.
Even the most extreme branded beef programs embrace targets that are variations on the same theme.
For example, on the lean side of the fence are brands like Laura's Lean Beef, based in Kentucky, which covets leanness because their market is primarily folks who would not otherwise eat beef. In their system, Choice grade cattle are discounted, while Select carcasses as well as Standard carcasses with large enough ribeyes are rewarded. In keeping with that, their discount line for Yield Grade is leaner than other grids.
Specifically, John Tobe, President and CEO of Laura's Lean says the carcass target for them is: a carcass weight of 675-700 lb. for steers and 650-675 lb. for heifers; less than 0.2” of backfat; less than 2 percent Kidney, Pelvic and Heart Fat, Yield Grade 0.7-1.1 and a Quality Grade of Select or Laura's Select (described above). Laura's Lean marketed 53,000 head last year and expects to market 65,000 head this year. Additionally, none of these cattle can receive growth promotants or antibiotics.
On the other side of the fence are programs that focus on carcass quality. Creekstone Farms, also based in Kentucky, provides such an example. They focus on harvesting Angus cattle that will quality grade Prime and in the upper two thirds of Choice. Consequently they will accept the higher Yield Grades that go along with that. Currently Creekstone harvests 800 head per day and plans to be at 1,200 head per day in the next two months.
In between these branded examples are programs like PM Beef Group, which has a grid more favorable to yield than the commodity market but still demands cattle that grade at least Select. Jim Norwood is supply coordinator for PM Beef Group, which harvests 700-800 head per day and supplies product exclusively to two grocery store chains. He describes their carcass target as: carcass weight of 700-900 lb.; High Select and Low Choice—no Standards; backfat less than 0.6 in.; ribeye of 12-16 sq. in; and 18-months-old or younger.
Today, these branded examples and others like them still represent a mass minority of the cattle fed each year. They continue to grow by serving their customers and the industry overall, but the markets they represent are niches, wherein producers have decided the extra costs of producing to their targets are offset by the premiums they can get. For instance, in both of the extreme examples mentioned here, high percentage or purebred cattle—(Limousin or Charolais in the case of Laura's Lean; Angus in the case of Creekstone Farms) are not only encouraged, they're necessary to meet the carcass targets.
Conversely, consistently hitting the 70-70-0 target typically demands strategically blended mixes of English and Continental cattle.
Keep in mind, the number one requirement of all of these programs, niche or not, is food safety and beef quality assurance. Do anything to cast suspicion in those areas and they could care less how well carcasses meet other specifications.
Why the Gun is Moving
The movement away from, rather than toward, the 70-70-0 goal undoubtedly stems from many factors but these may be the three primary drivers.
First, weight is still the overriding economic incentive in most carcass scenarios, be it the live cash commodity market or specific and specialized grids. Couple that with the cheap corn the industry has enjoyed for a long while and that means you can often incur heavy-weight discounts and still be money ahead by feeding cattle longer, to heavier weights.
Second, for some reason a decade or so ago, many of the most heavily used breeds started trying to make their breeds more like the ones they were most different from. Continental breeds known for muscle and leanness started concentrating on marbling; English breeds noted for marbling started focusing on muscle. The end result has been that commercial producers have less genetic variation, less variation in breed differences, to use in changing genetics today than they had in the past.
According to Field, the three most effective tools producers have at their disposal to change genetics are selection pressure, breed differences and mating systems. Reduce genetic variation and breed differences loses steam as a tool, as does the degree of differences that can be pressured or selected for. Field estimates five breeds provide 60 percent of the genetics utilized by the commercial industry today.
Moreover, the simple fact is that many producers still do not utilize some of the most basic technologies available to them. As an example, Field says according to the National Animal Health Monitoring Service (NAHMS), only half of commercial producers have a defined calving season; only 49.1 percent of producers in this country utilize individual calf identification; 35 percent of the calves and 30 percent of the cows are not identified in any form or fashion.
Obviously, there are valid reasons some producers ignore technologies like these. And, Field points out, “Any technology that betrays the promise of simplicity must have an easily recognizable and high net value to the enterprise if it is to be integrated into the business.”
So, if technology is too costly, too complicated or too difficult to understand and implement, chances are it won't be widely adopted by commercial producers.
For instance, Field points to ultrasound, which can be used to evaluate the carcass traits of live cattle for selection. That costs about $15 per head. There are currently two DNA tests that can be used to identify the presence or absence of genes for marbling and tenderness. Combined, those tests cost $80 per head.
“Can we return that much value back to the system if we use those technologies?” wonders Field.
Of course, even before these technologies though, the fact that cattle continue to move away from the target may say plenty but how many or how few producers begin their production year with a clear goal in mind of what target they're trying to meet, both in terms of end product, be it carcass, replacements, weaned calves, etc. and in terms of net profit.
As Norwood says, “Determine the market fit, then increase the consistency around hitting that bulls eye.” Across the board, he explains unfolding consumer trends mean that producers will be held to higher standards of accountability, driven by food safety and necessitating the increased use of electronic identification, as well as increased coordination between industry segments.
Field sums up the targets and the available technologies for hitting targets this way: “Not using these tools should only be undertaken with a detailed assessment of the value of lost opportunity.” In other words, choose not to use tools based on knowing what it is costing you.