Read the first installment of Beef's Quality Revolution Series here. 

Information gleaned from the Beef Quality Audits spawned numerous industry-wide programs and alliances that built upon the concept of sharing information to reward stakeholders and improve beef’s overall quality. 
“We recognized one size should not necessarily fit all,” says Warren Weibert, who co-owned and managed Decatur County Feed Yard for 37 years before retiring in 2014. Producers faced significant environmental variations from region to region. “Cattle must work on the ranch first, but the Strategic Alliances Project showed that ranchers could benefit from cooperating with the other segments up the chain to improve their cattle and increase their profits.”
The influence from that first strategic alliances project is seen in nearly every corner of today’s beef industry. Ranchers now find increased value to their cattle through improved genetics and health programs. Those who market calves off the cow see increased sale prices for weaning and preconditioning programs that provide buyers with clues to their feedlot performance. Ranchers who choose to retain ownership can earn carcass premiums through packer price grids and branded beef programs. Further evidence of beef’s quality revolution is found in the significant increase in carcasses grading Choice and Prime. In 2006, 56.2% of carcasses graded Choice, with another 2.8% grading Prime. In 2016, nearly 74% of carcasses graded Choice, with 5.9% Prime. 
Three main drivers have led to higher quality grades, says Larry Corah, professor emeritus at Kansas State University who also served for 18 years as vice president of Certified Angus Beef’s LLC (CAB) supply development division. Increases in the price of fed cattle from 2005 to 2010 while grain prices remained relatively steady meant cattle feeders could earn more by feeding cattle to heavier weights. “Those heavier endpoints typically mean more marbling and higher quality grades,” he says. 
The widespread drought in the early years of this decade forced producers to cull their cow herds deep. “That eliminated a lot of poorer cattle and producers have replaced them with better quality cows.”
The third driver of quality gains is the industry’s focus on genetics. “Within the Angus breed there’s been a continuous selection for marbling,” Corah says. “But we’ve also seen other breeds such as Simmental and Hereford that have placed significant emphasis on marbling.”

Improvements to quality and consistency are why branded beef programs now account for 96% of all beef sold at retail.

CAB, for instance, sold more than 1 billion pounds in fiscal 2016, continuing the brand’s phenomenal growth over a generation. Improved genetics at the ranch level helped make that growth possible. In 1991, the CAB acceptance rate for cattle identified on a live basis was 16%. 

“Genetic improvement and higher percentage Angus in commercial herds have dramatically ramped up quality in the last decade,” Corah says. “Acceptance rate last year was a record 28.9%, more than double that of 2006. The acceptance rate averaged more than 32% in July this year, which looks to be another record-breaker and a 13th consecutive growth year.”
Success stories can be found through other branded programs, too, and consumers continue to buy beef despite increasing retail prices over the past few years. The industry’s quality revolution, however, must continue with new goals.
“In the 25 years since the first NBQA, the scope of the term 'Quality' has expanded; and that is justifiably so,” Smith says. “Social issues—like animal care/handling and sustainability—have gained traction with consumers of our products. The beef supply-chain has reacted magnificently on both of those fronts and must be more forthcoming, with both customers and consumers, about results of those efforts—via the transparency afforded through traceability. Let’s announce that to the world. Canada just did, by revealing that its sustainable beef will soon be available to those concerned about human health and the health of our planet.”
Similar to presentations at producer meetings in the mid-1990s where Smith and Mies campaigned for dramatic changes in mindset as well as production practices, today they champion new ideas that might not affect the flavor of beef, but could greatly impact consumer acceptance. 
“I understand the reluctance of some producers to divulge private business information to others, but the beef industry must become more transparent,” Smith says. 
“The 2005 NBQA identified ‘Traceability’ as the highest ranked quality challenge, and the 2016 NBQA listed ‘How And Where Cattle Were Raised’ as the fifth-highest quality challenge. Despite the fact that we are the most technologically advanced nation in the world, we are behind the curve on using what we know to compete globally on the issue of traceability. Consumers want to know where food comes from and how it was produced,” he says.

The quality audits, funded by the Beef Checkoff, have been conducted every five years for the past 25 years to provide a set of guideposts and measurements for producers and others to help determine quality conformance of America’s beef supply. As the years past, notice that some factors have been resolved, while new challenges have emerged. (Lori Hays/Farm Journal Media)