Are the forces in the beef market setting up yet another change in cattle type?

Consider this: We have now spent more than a century seeking a type of cattle capable of uniformly providing pleasurable eating experiences. First were the lean, tough, poor-tasting native cattle brought out of the Southwest to the West and the Midwest. Next came crossbreds with British papas mated to native mammas; they tasted a little better. Then came the roly-poly British straightbreds and crossbreds with taste fat in abundance.

In the 1950s, the genetic process was reversed; a lot of lean papas replaced a lot of roly-poly papas in matings with roly-poly mammas. Later, a lot of roly-poly British papas were bred to mammas that were either British roly-polys, continental leans or combinations of the two. In time, beef on the hoof became a genetic jungle, and beef on the hook became an unpredictable commodity. By 1991, a beef-quality audit found beef to still be in need of more taste fat and much more tenderness. 

Recent efforts have focused intensely on finding flavorful carcasses within the general cattle population. Breeder associations, particularly Angus and Hereford, have developed major volume in branded products meeting narrow specifications. Retailers, including the giant Wal-Mart, have developed private specifications that have processors offering producers value-based premiums to meet demand. Processors themselves are seeking specification cattle to fill demand for a growing number of branded products. Are these programs having sufficient impact to influence cattle type in your breeding program?

One way to answer this question is to follow the Choice/Select spread. A narrowing of the spread, which favors marbled meat, could portend a switch in demand from marbling to leanness. But this spread must be followed over time and analyzed carefully. The spread always narrows when long-fed cattle are high supply and indicates only that a buyer’s market has developed.

EPDs for tenderness, particularly marker-assisted EPDs, have the potential to shift type away from marbling. A claim of high eating satisfaction that is not fat dependent will appeal to consumers and should have much potential for narrowing or reversing the Choice/Select spread. Breeder associations are beginning to use this technology, and the number doing this is sure to increase. Much will depend on methods for identifying tender carcasses and on whether good tenderness and good taste are always synonymous.

I doubt you can look at today’s beef market and say that a type shift is underway. The accompanying chart shows a steady increase in the Choice/Select spread since 1980. If any kind of shift is occurring, it is a continued shift toward marbling. Whether this shift will continue is an open question. It is beginning to be said by reputable authorities that marbling isn’t the indicator of tenderness that has been thought  —   just a lubricant that facilitates the bite. Thus, the potential exists for a demand shift toward true tenderness and an enduring shift in the Choice/Select spread. 

Cattle producers in this country have never found it easy to anticipate type changes. They have been led into one type change after another, often by well-meaning persons lacking in market knowledge and vision. Another such time may have arrived. This time, ask a lot of questions, pick your indicators carefully and don’t stampede. You’re OK if you are producing cattle that perform well in today’s value-based system. 

To contact Fred Knop, write Drovers or send e-mail to