Muscling and marbling, in most cases, are two important factors when it comes to evaluating genetics for carcass quality. At different times of the year marbling will have a more significant impact on net return due to the variability of the Choice-Select spread. However, cutability or red meat yield value is constant year round and with the change in the way packers do business, it is rapidly becoming a key driver in the profit equation.
“The more fat the packers have to trim off will drive the value of cutability. Because we've moved from commodity trim to further trimming the product at the packer level, a premium is being placed on muscle,” says Duane Wulf, South Dakota State University, Brookings, South Dakota.
Cattle producers have had to make changes over the years to improve their product. The packers, in an effort to maintain margins and conquer food safety issues, have re-tooled processing floors to adapt to today's consumer. The move to case-ready production and meal solutions has placed new emphasis on red meat yield.
“With commodity trim, one inch of fat, there was no difference in value of a carcass until we hit yield grade 4. The packers cut the carcass and put it in the box with very little trimming,” Wulf says. “In the mid 90s, a high percentage of the boxed beef was closely trimmed, one-quarter inch of fat. Now we're moving to case-ready products and more boneless cuts with almost no fat. The increase in the boneless cuts in the meat case and more fat being trimmed off at the packer level, the value of muscle improves.”
“The big driver in placing value on cutability will be the move to case-ready products,” says Ken Conway, GeneNet, Hays, Kansas. GeneNet works with producers and a packer to help identify and market cattle through its exclusive carcass merit formula.
As the way the packers change their methods to get the product out the backdoor, carcasses that can maintain red meat yield are seeing more opportunities to garner premiums in the system. In the future, improving red meat yield may be the best way to improve the value of the end product.
“The closer to providing a meal ready product for the consumer, the less fat they want. As trimming the extra fat moves back to the packer we'll, start realizing the value of muscle,” Wulf says. “The value difference between a yield Grade 1 and a yield Grade 3 is much greater today than it used to be.”
Several factors are held accountable in the equation used to figure red meat yield, none more important than muscling and fat thickness. These two numbers are dominant and related at the same time.
“Cutability is a combination of fatness and muscling. Ribeye area determines fat thickness,” Wulf says. “If an animal has more genetic potential for muscling, nutrients during the feeding process will be put into muscle not fat.”
“The more muscle the animal has; obviously, the harder it is to get 4s. If heavy muscled cattle are overfed, then they could still wind up as 4s at harvest,” Conway says. “Cattle with larger loin eyes can tolerate more backfat and stay in a lower yield grade.”
Since producers are seeing potential to gain carcass premiums through red meat yield, disturbing figures come from carcass data on cattle harvested over the past few years. This data proves changes need to be made to help balance cutability with carcass quality.
“From 1997 until now, carcass weights have grown and ribeye area has stayed the same. Cattle are lighter muscled today,” Wulf says. “This leads to more yield grade 4's, because lighter muscled cattle get fat earlier in the feeding process.”
“With larger carcass weights there is more potential for YG 4s. With cheap corn there is a tendency to overfeed cattle. A lot of this increase can be blamed on mismanagement,” Conway says. “Sometimes when carcasses get bigger the loin eye doesn't come along with the increased weight.”
There is no clear cut answer that will explain this trend. According to Wulf, several selection and/or management oversights could be blamed for the recent increase in yield grade 4 cattle.
“It might be attributed to less crossbreeding and the increase of British genetics in the industry,” Wulf says. “Smaller framed cattle and the increased selection pressure for marbling by all breeds might also be blamed for what we're seeing.”
History might also help explain this phenomenon. As we look back, we're looking at basically different phenotypes in the cattle produced during the different decades, but hanging on the rail each generation tells its own story.
“We have less muscle now for frame size than we did in the 60s,” Wulf says. “Today, over half the cattle are below average for ribeye size, it wasn't that way in the 80s.”
As the industry looks for ways to help correct this problem and move toward a balance of marbling and muscling, the solution may not be cloaked in all the smoke and mirrors trends continue to help develop. Even though they are antagonistic traits, there is a portion of the population that contends producers can have the best of both worlds.
“There is a good chunk of cattle that have both traits. Nine percent are in the top third for muscling and the top third for marbling,” Wulf says. “The industry can make cattle that combine both traits through genetic selection, crossbreeding and management.”
“The cattle that combine both muscling and marbling and do it efficiently are the cattle of the future. Even though the traits are antagonistic, selection pressure can be put on both muscling and marbling. Producers need to feed cattle or find out how their cattle perform in order to make the right changes,” Conway says. “Most grids have a minimum grading level, anything above that is premium. The cattle that can meet the grading requirements and hit yield grade targets will be profitable on the grid.”
By adding some genetic diversity, commercial producers might be able to enhance the value of their product. Seedstock producers need to use the tools available to help provide bull power that will promote multiple trait cattle.
“From a commercial standpoint the quickest way to enhance carcass quality is through crossbreeding. Find complementary breeds such as British and Continental to get a combination of marbling and muscle. It makes a lot of sense to crossbreed,” Wulf says. “Seedstock providers need to select herd bulls that combine muscling and marbling. Look for the curve benders, just like when you selected sires that were low birth and high growth.”
“I harvest a lot of 50 percent Continental and 50 percent British cattle that work very well in different programs,” Conway says. “If they can grade, let the hybrid vigor work to add muscle and performance.”
To help make selections that will improve the muscling in the next calf crop, the industry is currently relying on technology that has proved very accurate in helping identify this trait. There are also some caution signs producers should be aware of when purchase decisions are made.
“Ribeye size is probably the most useful tool you have to evaluate genetic potential based on actual ultrasound data, especially when they are ranked in a contemporary group. Producers should look at the REA in relation to weight of that animal, this is a very good indication of muscling,” Wulf says. “Unlike a lot of other traits, muscling is highly heritable and can be evaluated fairly accurately through visual appraisal to select muscling at the appropriate frame size. If producers just look at the numbers, the only change that could be made, is to increase frame size.”
“The biggest problem commercial producers have is they get a lot of data thrown at them at one time. If commercial producers feed their own cattle, they know what information is relevant,” Conway says. “Carcass EPDs, ultrasound and historical data, if the seedstock producer feeds his own genetics, are all useful tools in bull selection.”
According to some studies, the food service industry has a point where ribeye size gets too large. However from the retail side, where the bulk of the product is sold, there seems to be no size bias. Economically, increasing red meat yield only adds value.
“The food service industry is concerned about ribeye size. They want a desired range because they are used to cutting a 10 to 12 ounce steak. The retail consumer shows no preference for one size or another,” Wulf says. “We shouldn't base portion size on only eight percent of the cuts, the ribeye and the strip loin are the only cuts affected. The rest of the cuts are cut differently and you get more of them by increasing muscle. It doesn't make sense to limit portion size from an economic standpoint.”
It seems selecting cattle for balanced carcass traits that will maintain a certain degree of marbling and increase cutability, is the quickest way to improve profit potential. Single trait selection has backed the industry into a corner time and time again. The lack of crossbreeding has upset the balance of traits at harvest. Hopefully balancing marbling and muscling will help turn the page and write this generation's own chapter in the quest to satisfy the industry's consumers. The high heritability offered by muscling should help take the next step.
“We have a lot more problems with ribeyes being too small in the industry today than too big,” Wulf says. “If producers add muscle in relation to weight and marbling, it is a win-win situation.”