Once upon a time, not long ago, in a land called the High Plains, there were two pens of cattle. Sleek, black-hided steers they were. All were the kind whose handsome visage might prompt bidding wars among desirous order-buyers that roamed this land. But neither group of steers had been sold by their respective masters. Each of these owners had encouraged their cattle to partake from the resources and management afforded by their separate and sovereign ranches. Then, in accordance with their belief in retained ownership, each rancher sought to market beef for the revered consumers’ feasting. Each one also wished to fatten his own purse by receiving a fair reward for added value.

And so it came to pass that both groups of steers journeyed to the domain of a reputable custom feedlot. Under the care of experienced, dutiful servants, the cattle were prepared for harvest. In due time, each pen was presented to a packer, offering payment according to a grid-pricing system ordained by both buyer and sellers. Alas, while both pens of steers still appeared much alike at the time of harvest, they were not.

Dear reader, this ain’t no fairy tale. Different groups of cattle might look alike upon arrival at the feedlot. They might represent the same breed or breed combination. They might even appear quite similar at the end of the feeding period. That doesn’t mean they are the same.

Just ask veteran rancher and cattle feeder Gary Darnall. Along with his son, Lane, Darnall operates Darnall Feedlot, a 20,000-head custom feeding operation near Harrisburg, Neb. Over the years, he has seen many times how there can be very significant differences between two seemingly similar pens of cattle. The differences become apparent when comparing actual performance and carcass data. As an example, Darnall cites data from two pens of black-hided cattle fed at Darnall Feedlot and sold on a grid.

On the one hand is a pen of 96 steers that finished at an average of 1,370 pounds and boasted the better feedlot performance. Exhibiting superior carcass merit was the other pen, consisting
of 176 steers with an average finished weight of 1,326 pounds.  Hot carcass weight for the two pens was similar, at 839 pounds and 837 pounds, respectively.

“And the cattle did look similar. Both groups looked good in the pens, and both were good in their own right,” Darnall says. “But neither represents the ideal. Neither represents what I think we should be striving for.”

According to Darnall, the differences in carcass merit were significant. The high-quality pen dressed better (63 percent compared to 61 percent), produced 35.8 percent more Choice carcasses, and 4.5 percent graded Prime. Additionally, 25 percent more carcasses qualified for Certified Angus Beef. On average, ribeye area for the high-quality pen was 0.4 inch larger. This pen earned more premiums and fewer discounts because fewer carcasses fell into Yield Grade 4 or 5 categories.

However, the other pen’s average daily gain was 0.75 pound greater. Those cattle consumed 0.95 pound less feed per pound of gain, and their cost of gain was 3.3 cents less, on average. They definitely outperformed the high-quality pen. But which kind of cattle makes the most money?

“That depends on the market — the Choice/Select spread. Historically, pounds are king in this business. But the consumer wants more quality, and better premiums provide the incentive to produce it,” Darnall says. “Still, it seems we often choose to produce one or the other — performance or carcass quality — but we shouldn’t have to sacrifice one for the other. We need both, in balance,” he adds.

Over time, Darnall says, increasing numbers of “balanced” cattle are coming to his feedlot. They are coming from ranchers that receive feedlot performance and carcass data on their own cattle and use it to improve genetic selection in their breeding herds. And they’re focused on more than selecting the right kind of bulls.

“There’s more to it than buying the best bulls you can find or buying semen from top AI sires. It also takes more scrutiny of the dam’s side, too. It means using performance and carcass information to influence selection of replacement females and culling decisions,” Darnall explains.

It’s not easy. It takes time and dedication to produce cattle with bred-in predictability for both performance and carcass merit. Of course, good genetics won’t guarantee a happy ending. Management also plays a key role, but the genetic potential must be present first.

“To me, comparing pens of cattle that looked alike but had different outcomes reinforces the need to strive, genetically, for quality and performance together in the same package,” Darnall says. “That kind of package, managed to optimum potential, will offer more consistent opportunities for profit.”