Out in the feedyards, value-based marketing is forcing feeders to deal with genetics like never before. Along with quality and yield grade, feeders must focus differently on an area of long-standing importance-dressing percentage.

Beyond conformation, beefing up dressing percentage has historically been a matter of adding fat in the feedyard. But just adding fat doesn't always work now because fat increases yield grade, which can lead to price discounts on most grids. The grid era requires cattle with high quality grades and low yield grades in carcasses that dress high in relation to live shrunk weight.

Feeders dream about cattle that grade Choice or Prime, have a yield grade in the ones and dress out at 64 percent or more.

Here is an example of a real steer that was nearly ideal: Choice grade, yield grade 1.94, KPH 1.2 percent, ribeye area 12.1 square inches (1.9 R/C Ratio), backfat thickness 0.24 inch. This steer's only problem was its 62.8 dressing percentage. Using the rule that a difference of 1 square inch of ribeye area changes the dressing percentage one point, this steer would have dressed out at 64 percent had its ribeye area measured 13.3 square inches instead of 12.1 square inches.

An interesting thing about yield grading is that an increase in ribeye size lowers the final yield grade. In this example, the extra 1.2 square inches in ribeye area would have lowered the final yield grade from 1.94 to 1.63. This reduction would have left room for an additional tenth of an inch of backfat while keeping the yield grade in the ones (1.92).

The combined affect of the improvements in ribeye area and backfat thickness would have been an additional 24 pounds of carcass weight, or $27.60 for a steer selling for $1.15 per pound.

The quick way to produce high-dressing cattle is to use a high-dressing breed, which means a Continental breed. But this is not the complete answer. Meeting requirements for quality grade is a problem for many Continental breeds; some British breeds do much better. In reality, however, you can breed high dressing cattle with any breed if your herd has marbling ability.

The key to improving the dressout of cattle is to add muscularity. But this must be done carefully. Adding ribeye area won't increase dressing percentage unless there is a concurrent increase in the ratio of ribeye area to carcass weight. The steer in the example above had a ribeye ratio of 1.9, which is very good. But with an extra square inch of ribeye area his ratio would have climbed to 2.09.

Obtaining carcass information by feeding out your calves or following them to harvest through your customers is an essential first step in a dressout improvement program. You must examine these data closely for many purposes, including dressout percentage. If that percentage is below 64 percent, you have work to do.

Take a close look at the muscularity of your bulls and cows. Should the ribeye expected progeny differences of your bulls be improved? Even more important is where your bulls are on your breed's EPD scale for percent retail product? Pure increases in ribeye area can be achieved by increasing frame size. But this won't necessarily increase your ribeye/carcass weight ratio. The EPD for percent retail yield is based on zero-trim for surface fat and, therefore, says more about carcass muscularity than the ribeye EPD.

Carcass data on your harvested cattle, if related to individual cows, will help make productive culling decisions. But if you don't have individual cow records, seek out and cull the lightly muscled cows that might be depressing your dressout percentage.

Many feedyards still use fat to increase dressout, including some that are marketing on the grid. But the pressure is building for cattle that achieve high dressing without levels of backfat that depress yield grade percentages and grid premiums. The way to do this is with muscle and the place to do it is in the breeding pasture, not the feedyard.

To contact Fred Knop, write Drovers or send e-mail to fredlyn@aol.com