Following a presentation of the 2011 National Beef Quality Audit (NBQA) at the recent Beef Improvement Federation conference, representatives from across the beef chain offered their reactions to the results and observations of beef-quality issues.
The panel included Tom Woodward, general manager of Broseco Ranch, Dan Dorn, supply development coordinator with Decatur County Feed Yard, Art Wagner, vice president of cattle procurement for national Beef Packing Company and Dr. Norlyn Tipton, program quality manager, specialty meat companies, Sysco Corporation.
Woodward says Broseco Ranch focuses on beef quality assurance, with an understanding that consumer perceptions about beef production can be more important than facts. He believes cow-calf producers have a responsibility to begin the process of producing a wholesome beef product that provides eating satisfaction. Good genetics for carcass and production traits, coupled with sound vaccination and weaning protocols help set calves up for a successful transition through later production stages and help ensure beef quality. The ranch continuously trains its employees in beef quality assurance, helping them understand they are in the food business.
Woodward says the Red Angus operation retains ownership of feeer cattle through the feedyard, and thus selects for cattle that excel in marbling and growth characteristics. Broseco ranch has used individual electronic identification since 1995 to help record keeping and management decisions, but he says the Texas operation will continue using branding for identifying cattle.
Decatur County Feed Yard
From a beef-quality perspective, Dorn says cattle feeders often find themselves in the position of trying to upgrade the overall quality of cattle they receive in order to provide their customer, the packer, with cattle that meet their needs and specifications.
Inconsistency in cattle is one of the biggest challenges cattle feeders face, he says. Illustrating this variability, Decatur county conducted a profit audit based on performance and carcass data collected on 185,000 steers and heifers over a five-year period. The analysis cancelled out differences in market prices, feed costs and seasonal variability in performance, allowing evaluation of the effects of genetics alone on the profitability of an individual ranch’s cattle. They found the actual value animals entering the feedyard, based on in-weights adjusted to 650 pounds entering the feedyard range from a low of $550 to a high of $1,175 per head.
Art Wagner says his company, National Beef, sorts carcasses about 70 different ways to meet specifications for its various branded, boxed-beef, case-ready and portion-controlled products. Overall quality has improved since the earlier audits, helping packers fill demand for consistent, premium products. He credits the industry’s Beef Quality Assurance program for helping build awareness, creating cooperation and providing a platform for communication between sectors.
Since the early audits, he says, injection-site lesions are less prevalent, USDA Quality Grades are higher, record keeping is better and fewer carcasses have bruises or other damage. “Economic signals work”, he says.
Looking ahead, Wagner says producers need to remain vigilant on defects such as injection-site lesions and bruises, while also focusing on issues such as animal handling and welfare and record keeping. Now that National Beef is also in the leather business, hide damage from too many hot-iron brands has become an issue for the company. He also notes that the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service has pressured packers to find ways to reduce pathogen loads on cattle entering the plants, to improve the effectiveness of in-plant food-safety interventions. He expects some of this pressure eventually will shift to feedyards and cow-calf producers, pushing them to use pre-harvest interventions such as E. coli vaccines.
Representing food-distribution giant Sysco Corporation, Norlyn Tipton says the company supplies about 400,000 food-service customers, employs about 9,000 sales people and 180 quality-assurance staff, and represents 1,900 suppliers of branded products.
Some of the most common questions meat customers ask, he says, are about food safety and why companies do not test more for pathogens or other safety threats. Traceability also is becoming a bigger issue as customers ask for more information about the sources and management backgrounds of meat products.
Tipton says Sysco wants consistency in quality, but also needs some variation such as in size of beef cuts, to supply a variety of customers. For some of its boxed-beef programs, for example, Sysco sorts middle meats to fit specifications including a traditional ribeye size of 11 to 14 square inches. Another program supplies beef grading in the upper two-thirds of Choice quality grade, and targets a smaller, portion-controlled steak. This program uses dairy-steer carcasses specifying ribeye areas as small as 10 square inches.
For more about the early release of some 2011 NBQA results at the BIF conference, read “NBQA: Sneak peek.”