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USDA Choice Beef is Pumping up Paychecks

USDA Choice Beef is Pumping up Paychecks
Retailer demands are changing the kinds of product you might raise in the future.

Quality beef has always been touted by the beef industry as a major goal. Lately though, it has become the overriding factor for success of all sectors, including retailers.

Old timers will recall when several groups in the industry weren’t so concerned about “USDA quality grade”. Some wanted it deemphasized. We had started to import large European breeds better known for tremendous “lean beef yield” than for marbling.

For a time, even university researchers seemed to question the need for marbling. Studies showed a minor relationship between marbling and taste panel satisfaction.

The real world has a different take. Adequate marbling has always been a very good insurance policy for less than competent cooking!

You need to understand USDA’s beef quality grading system and know how your cattle are measuring up. Its purpose is to accurately reflect meat palatability – tenderness, juiciness and flavor. The factors we can observe include carcass maturity, firmness, texture and color of lean, plus the amount and distribution of marbling within the lean.

Beef grading 101

Here’s a quick lesson on how a carcass is graded and valued from USDA's perspective:

* Marbling: It’s the fat flecks dispersed within the lean muscle. Trained graders evaluate the amount and distribution in the ribeye muscle between the 12th and 13th ribs. Degree of marbling is the primary determination of quality grade.

Select requires a “slight” degree of marbling; Low Choice requires a “small” degree; “High Choice” requires “moderate” and “Average Prime” requires a “moderately abundant” degree. Good graders are highly consistent.

* Maturity: A skilled grader looks for carcass factors related to physiological maturity, not an animal’s chronological age. Those factors include bone characteristics, ossification of cartilage plus and color and texture of ribeye muscle.

Cartilage becomes “ossified” or “bone-like” as the animal ages. Ribeye lean color darkens and its texture becomes coarser with advancing age. Cartilage and bone maturity get more emphasis since lean color and texture can be affected by other factors.

Maturity is described by a letter: A= 9 to 30 months; B=30 to 42 months; C=42 to 72 months; D=72 to 96 months; and E= more than 96 months. Cattle grading Prime, Choice, Select or Standard must have A and B maturity. C, D and E maturities are graded Commercial and Utility.

The proportion of cattle grading Choice has been slowly and steadily rising. Ten years ago, 50% to 55% of all slaughter cattle graded Choice. Now, that figure routinely runs 60% to 65%.

* The ‘Walmart effect’: No, it’s not a USDA grading factor. But it has a huge effect on the Choice/Select price spread.

Walmart speaks; You listening?

Like it or not, the chain carries clout. Walmart accounts for 10 to 15% of all U.S. retail beef. In November, a quiet but highly significant change occurred in Walmart policy. Instead of offering primarily Select grade, the retailer started featuring Choice beef at all 3,800 stores nationwide.

Walmart’s move was in direct response to shopper’s demands for a higher quality product. It was a very successful move. It’s no coincidence that shortly thereafter the Choice/Select price spread widened dramatically from $3 to $5 to $17 to $19!

If you’re selling fed cattle, you can’t ignore the “Walmart effect” on your paychecks. Assuming an $18 per hundredweight price spread on the carcass of a 1,300-pound steer dressing 63%, you’ll gross about $147 more per head for that Choice animal.

No one forecasts a return to that $3 to $5 spread anytime soon. And, most major grocery chains are emphasizing Choice beef.

Sure, feeding methods and implant programs are important. But well-managed feedlots know where to buy cattle that “make the grade” and where to avoid cattle that don’t.

A given critter’s potential to make the most of its feedlot program is largely in the hands of the cow’calf producer! Spring bull sales will soon be upon us. We’ve never ever had so much predictive information available on young bulls.

Looking at the beef demand trends and the price incentives involved. It’s foolish to not consider marbling ability (EPD’s) in bull selection.

Harpster is a Penn State animal scientist and a beef cow-calf producer.

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