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Strategies for producing high-quality, profitable beef

Patrick Davis for Progressive Cattleman Published on 08 September 2017
beef steak

Cattle producers in the U.S. should be asking themselves: “What is high-quality beef and how do we produce it?” Not only is high quality what the packers and consumers want, but there are also incentives for those who produce a quality product.

Using 2012 to 2014 data, Colorado State University showed an average $10 to $13 per hundredweight improvement for Choice carcasses and an average $23 per hundredweight improvement for Prime carcasses when compared to Select grade carcasses.

Likewise, the USDA livestock, poultry and grain market news division reported for comprehensive boxed beef cutout value, wholesale prices improved by $45 per hundredweight for Prime carcass cuts and $9 to $15 per hundredweight for Choice carcass cuts in 2012 to 2014 when compared to Select cuts. But how do we produce high-quality beef?

Improving marbling content in cattle at slaughter will lead to the production of high-quality beef. One way to improve marbling in calves for slaughter is to place selection pressure for carcass traits in replacement herd bulls as well as females. Expected progeny differences (EPDs) and genomic testing are a few tools we have to make those decisions and evaluate the genetic merit and progress of the herd. The difference between two bulls’ EPDs for a trait is the expected progeny performance difference of those two bulls for that trait.

For example, two replacement bulls are considered for purchase: Bull A has a marbling EPD of +1.14, and Bull B has a marbling EPD of +0.35. Since the goal is to improve marbling in the calves, Bull A should be selected because, on average, his progeny will have an improved USDA marbling score compared to Bull B. Also, EPDs can be characterized through percentile ranks. This method allows comparison of bulls to the entire breed for the specific trait. Using the same example, Bull A has a marbling EPD in the third percentile for the breed and Bull B has a marbling EPD in the 65th percentile for the breed. Bull A should be selected because his progeny, on average, will have a better USDA marbling score than Bull B.

When using EPDs in bull selection, make sure to provide selection pressure on traits that need improvement while not sacrificing other important traits. When improving carcass quality, we don’t want to sacrifice other economically relevant traits such as calving ease and growth because this could lead to problems that could affect your bottom line.

Another way to improve carcass quality is to identify and bring, or retain, genetics into the herd that have the potential to improve marbling. This should be achieved through replacement heifers and bulls. Cattle operations can work with a genetic testing company to test these animals, identify their genetic profile for marbling and utilize that information in selecting animals that have the potential to improve marbling and carcass quality of calves to be marketed by the cattle operation.

Management’s role in quality

With the genetics in place to improve carcass quality, management of those animals from birth to slaughter is important to produce a high-quality carcass. Calves need to be vaccinated to have proper immunity through their life, reducing the incidence of sickness. Sickness leads to calves’ use of energy for fighting off the illness and reduces energy usage for marbling, resulting in lower-quality grades at slaughter. Visit with your veterinarian to develop the proper vaccination program and an individualized plan for your operation.

It is important to incorporate starch in the calves’ diet, which usually means corn, as soon as possible to increase their ability to marble. Creep feeding exposes calves to starch earlier in life, increasing potential to improve marbling score and carcass quality. However, it is important to look at the management and economics associated with creep feeding and make sure it’s a sound decision for your operation.

Animal handling is also important to carcass quality. CSU and Australian research reported poor-temperament cattle produced smaller carcasses, had a reduction in measures of meat quality, tougher meat and higher incidence of borderline dark cutters. My suggestion is to review your cattle-handling practices, research low-stress cattle-handling techniques and try to make changes as needed to reduce stress since it might improve marbling and carcass quality in your cattle.

Proper marketing is needed to capture the value of these high-quality carcasses. Small cattle operations may be able to market those calves or meat products directly off the farm, which allows them to capture full value. In larger-scale operations, it could make economical or operational sense to partner with a feedlot or feed calves through the feedlot and market directly to a slaughter facility. In this scenario, make sure you research the feedlot thoroughly to understand their health, feeding management and marketing programs and determine if the decision is profitable to your operation. Furthermore, make sure you can work with the feedlot and slaughter facility to get carcass and performance data back on your calves so you can use that information in management decisions to improve the carcass quality and profit potential of your operation.

If developed and managed properly, high-quality beef is a way to improve profit potential. A marketing scenario to capture that potential is key to success. Hopefully, this article provided some strategies that can be incorporated into your operation to improve carcass quality of calves as well as profit potential for the operation.  end mark

Patrick Davis
  • Patrick Davis

  • Regional Livestock Specialist
  • University of Missouri Extension
  • Email Patrick Davis

PHOTO: One way to improve marbling is to place selection pressure for carcass traits in replacement herd bulls and females. Photo provided by Thinkstock.