Give us humans a red rubber ball and inside of 30 minutes, we'll figure out a way to use it for things it was never intended, while overlooking 101 uses it was in fact designed for. Just like the tools available for genetic carcass selection today.
On the surface, the ultimate carcass target of a commercial cow/calf operation seems straight forward enough. In the open market today, as well as across many value-added grids—notwithstanding varying targets set by some successful value-added systems—the industry goal developed a while back by members of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA) ought to represent a reasonable walk down the middle of the road. Specifically, the 70-70-0 goal defines groups of cattle that go at least 70 percent Choice and higher, Yield grade at least 70 percent and lower and produce zero out cattle, those money sucking lightweights, heavyweights, dark cutters and the like.
In fact, at this year's NCBA convention, Dr. Daryl Tatum of Colorado State University (CSU) said, “Those are the three things that make the most difference to you as a producer in terms carcass value.”
Moreover, while the carcass discounts haven't changed much over the past several years, Tatum explained, across time, quality grade tends to be a more important factor when it comes to premiums. And, as always, weight drives the total dollars, whether you're talking calves or carcasses.
Keep in mind, the way the industry is evolving, it doesn't really matter if you intend to feed out the calves you produce or not. Someone will. And increasingly folks feeding cattle are trying to get a handle on value rather than price, which changes the complexion of everything.
For instance, talk to some of the largest ranchers in the Southeast and Southwest these days and they'll tell you when buyers come to eyeball the offering, they want to see more than cattle flesh. Even if they have feeding and carcass data from past sets of the customers' cattle, some are asking to see the pedigrees and Expected Progeny Differences (EPDs) for the sires of the current crop.
Even in the cash market where cattle numbers are presumably growing thinner than a vacuum-packed flapjack there have been some reports of packers unwilling to take particular sets of cattle at any price.
Fuzzing the Lines
So, for the first time in their cattle-raising careers, a fair number of commercial producers are trying to get a grip on not only how their own cattle perform on the rail, but what all of this carcass data means to begin with. For instance, what is quality grade, besides a USDA label that earns premiums and discounts? What is yield grade? Is individual carcass data better than pen data?
For the record, as a highlight primer, if you've yet to experience the joys of carcass merit:
*Quality Grade—In theory at least, the U.S. quality grades—Prime, Choice, Select, Standard, Commercial, Utility, Cutter and Canner—are supposed to provide an indicator of expected eating quality differences based on the maturity of the animal and the amount of intramuscular fat (marbling) in the carcass. In basic terms, for animals 9 to 30 months of age at the time of harvest, the more marbling they have, the higher they will grade. There's plenty of debate about how accurate marbling is in predicting eating quality, but for now it's what the industry has and uses to value the quality of beef, at least in broad terms.
*Yield Grade—This is an estimate of carcass cutability or the carcass percentage of boneless retail cuts from the round, loin, rib and chuck, based upon carcass weight, ribeye size, fat thickness and the estimated percentage of Kidney, Heart and Pelvic Fat (KPH). The more the muscle and the less the fat, typically the lower (better) the Yield Grade. And the lower Yield Grades are worth more money because the lower the Yield Grade, the higher percentage of boneless, closely trimmed retail cuts there are in the carcass that can be sold.
*Out cattle—in general terms any carcass weighing more than 950 lb. or less than 550 lb., any carcass quality grading worse than Select or Yield Grading worse than 3, any carcass older than 30 months of age or any that are dark cutters, will incur severe price discounts.
In fact, discounts are so much more severe than premiums are friendly that ringing the bell of carcass value is more about avoiding mistakes than it is necessarily creating a single package that is the tops in every area.
“A $20 pop per hundredweight will take away all of the fun of how good the three percent did that got premiums,” said Tom Field at the same NCBA session. He's also a CSU animal science professor and has plenty of personal experience with the ups and downs of carcass potential in his family's ranching operation. That's why he suggests producers focus on Quality Grade, Yield Grade and Out cattle—the 20 percent of the puzzle that yields 80 percent of the benefit—rather than getting wrapped up in the details of the other 80 percent of the puzzle that can't return near the carcass dollars.
Likewise, as producers track their cattle down the packinghouse rail, Field said, “Pen data, as long as you have enough numbers tells you where you are. Individual data tells you which of your sires are chumps and which are champs.” In both cases, however, he advises against making a mountain out of a molehill with small sets of data.
After all, Field pointed out, “I think one of the most common misconceptions today is that carcass traits are under 100 percent absolute genetic control. It's critical to think about what can be best controlled with management or with genetics.
“So, were the cattle the correct age going into the feedlot? Was there too much age variation in the pen? Was there too much biotype variation in the pen?” says Field. In other words, are there some cattle you should just take to town and trade because you will never fix them with management or luck?
Field continued, “Was time on feed and the marketing endpoint correct? Were the cattle harvested at the right time? The fact of the matter is if they weren't harvested at the right time, your data doesn't tell you anything about your genetics.”
And too, Field pointed out, producers can milk more value out of pen averages by looking at trait distribution rather than the overall average.
For instance, he cited a pen of 72 head his family followed through the feedlot last winter. The cattle averaged 2.7 for Yield Grade, Low Choice for Quality Grade, 13.85 sq. in. for ribeye and 794 lb. for carcass weight—just what the doctor ordered, at least on an average basis.
But, when Field looked at trait distribution—or trait variation—28 percent of the carcasses were less than 700 lb. and nearly 10 percent were pushing 900 lb., so about 38 percent were in jeopardy of getting squashed by some major-league discounts, in the $20/cwt. neighborhood on many grids. And that was just variation on carcass weight. All told, 4.2 percent were barely past Standard grade; 12.5 percent were riding the line of Yield Grade 4 and 10 percent of the carcasses had ribeyes that were borderline too large.
Jerking Slack at Ranch Level
With all due respect to the power of massaging extra efficiency from more data that is increasingly refined, figuring out to hit carcass targets—building calves for buyers trying to hit these targets—doesn't have to be that complicated.
“Managing breed composition is our biggest weapon to improve the quality and consistency of our product,” said Don Schiefelbein, executive director of the American Gelbvieh Association (AGA) recently.
After mining feedlot and carcass data on over 165,000 head in AGA's Gelbvieh Alliance, Schiefelbein says one thing that becomes obvious is that, overall, higher percentage cattle, no matter the breed have less feedlot and carcass performance than complimentary crossbreds. Specifically the most valuable feedlot and carcass cattle in the AGA data set are halfblood English X Continental cattle.
Of course, that shouldn't come as much of a shock. It all goes back to the interest heterosis adds to the genetic investment and the reality that complimentary breeds can quickly offer a more optimum product than a single breed. For perspective, Schiefelbein points out research indicates hybrid vigor offers a 38 percent advantage in longevity, a 25 percent advantage in productivity and an eight percent advantage in efficiency.
When it comes to carcass traits, Schiefelbein suggests the common sense approach of balancing known breed strengths and weaknesses can help most producers get a long ways toward their own goals and those of their customers. In other words, if you know you have a problem with Yield Grade in the cowherd, why would you consider adding a breed that can't offer you muscle or leanness? Conversely, if you have a lean and muscular herd and you want to achieve the 70-70-0 goal, it would make little sense to overlook using bulls from a breed that could offer you added marbling.
Schiefelbein suggests a breeding blueprint that could solve a lot of problems in the industry, relative to lost heterosis: “If you can readily identify the breed composition of an individual animal, then you have too much of that individual breed in the animal.”