The 20-year history of the check off-funded National Beef Quality Audits has been a story of several successes; however, every audit has revealed there is still work to be done.  The most recent audit was conducted in 2011, and the results were released in 2012. Typically done on a five-year cycle, the early audits revealed some “low-hanging” fruit, such as excess fat and injection-site lesions that were more easily “picked.” Those original efforts led to educational outreach to producers, often funneled through the check off-funded Beef Quality Assurance program, that have made many quality defects a thing of the past.

As times and consumer preferences change, both domestically and internationally, the definition of “quality” has changed, leading to new benchmarks that need to be met to improve product consistency and, ultimately, industry profitability.

The 2011 National Beef Quality Audit research teams gathered volumes of data during three project phases that culminated in a strategy workshop in 2012. All of the audits have attempted to summarize “lost opportunities” or factors that, if corrected, provide chances to create added value to the industry by better meeting consumer preferences. “Researchers have changed the logic or method of calculation over time, but the interpretation of these values remains the same. In other words, for every steer and heifer harvested in the fed beef cattle industry for the given year, X number of dollars are lost when expectations are not met,” says Deb VanOverbeke, PhD and associate professor of meat science at Oklahoma State University.

During Phase I, face-to-face interviews were conducted with packers, retailers and restaurateurs to determine what the ideal quality-grade consist should be. “These values have changed over the years as the various segments tend to change or modify their product offerings based on the signals they are receiving from consumers,” adds VanOverbeke, who has been a research collaborator on the last three audits.

The percentage of carcasses grading Prime and Choice has increased from the time the first audit was conducted in 1991 (55 percent) to the current audit (61 percent), but still not enough carcasses meet the consist goals for the Prime category, according to VanOverbeke.

But that doesn’t mean you can’t still positively impact quality grade, even if you need to incorporate Bos indicus into a crossbreeding program. “As long as you can limit Bos indicus inheritance to 3/8 (37.5 percent) or less, then the potential negative impacts on tenderness are reduced, and there is still an opportunity to benefit from the heterosis involved in that cross,” Tatum says. All of the breeds have made inroads to better evaluate tenderness, but the evolution of marker-assisted selection represents the next frontier for accurately selecting cattle that excel in quality attributes from a carcass standpoint. Tenderness is a moderately heritable trait, meaning that traditional means for evaluation and selection, such as progeny testing or collecting ultrasound data, made it difficult and cumbersome to select for changes very quickly. “Today, a commercial cattle producer can go out and purchase a test for less than $20 that will help him identify replacement heifers that excel in growth and carcass merit,” says Jason Ahola, PhD and associate professor at Colorado State University, specializing in beef production systems.

“So, there are significant opportunities to more efficiently influence quality grade in your herds.”

Ahola does caution producers to balance their selection with the traits that are most related to profitability. “If you go back to basics, then sustained fertility at the cow-calf level still has more influence on profitability than any other trait. But we can’t ignore the direction that our industry is headed, which is to value cattle all the way through the system.”

If you sell at weaning, you may not feel like you will be rewarded for emphasizing carcass quality in your selection criteria; however, Ahola emphasizes that feedlots and order buyers are still amassing performance data about your cattle. How well they grade may be the deciding factor on whether you have a repeat buyer the next year.

Because marbling is a moderately heritable trait, Ahola says it can take years to build into a herd. “The audit results demonstrate that retailers, foodservice and consumers are placing a lot of value on tenderness and quality, so it’s a trait you can’t ignore or you’ll be behind.”