The ways that packers determine the value of beef carcasses have not changed much over the years. Cattle prices, and the price of boxed beef the packers sell, depend primarily on weight, along with marbling scores and estimated red-meat yield assigned by U.S. Department of Agriculture graders.

The process soon could change dramatically. New and emerging video-imaging technology has the potential to improve the accuracy of the grading process and provide packers with additional measures of beef quality and value.

Since 1986, Research Management Systems (RMS), with operations in Fort Collins, Colo., has had instrument-grading systems installed at major packing facilities. RMS’s flagship technology is the computer vision system, or CVS, which derives hundreds of carcass characteristic measurements in seconds—all at commercial chain speeds.

By channeling the captured information through its carcass evaluation modules, the CVS is able to deliver a variety of valuable information related to carcass value including a prediction of salable meat yield, the degree of marbling and a measurement of ribeye area.

Yield grading
USDA has recently approved the CVS Yield Grade Augmentation Module, for use in measuring ribeye area to augment evaluations made by USDA graders in the application of Yield Grades for beef carcasses.

“For the first time, USDA graders now have a tool to help them predict carcass value,” says Dale Dexter, director of meat research for Research Management Systems.

In fact, the electronic grading system is precise enough to assign USDA grades to within a tenth of a Yield Grade, says Keith Belk, a Colorado State University meat scientist who helps oversee testing of the system. When these measurements are taken in conjunction with the other carcass traits, estimates of carcass value can be made with unprecedented accuracy and speed.

“It almost doesn’t matter where you draw the line,” Dr. Belk says. With the electronic grading system, “we’re going to be pretty accurate wherever you draw it.”

Tenderness and palatability
To further assist branded beef programs, RMS offers the CVS BeefCam® Tenderness Module, which predicts tenderness and palatability measurements of carcass quality. Originally developed by an alliance including Smart Machine Vision of Reston, Va., and Colorado State University, RMS incorporated and enhanced the BeefCam® with the CVS.

“We’re getting ready to roll it out later this year,” says Martin Goldberg, executive vice president and chief operating officer of Smart Machine Vision, which has the license for the CVS BeefCam module and distributes it through a partnership with RMS.

The timing of the rollout depends on a successful pilot test of the system in Corpus Christi, Texas, as part of the Nolan Ryan Tender Aged Beef program offered by BeefMaster Cattlemen.

“We are just now to the point where we are testing new equations that look very promising,” says Dr. Belk. “These equations enable us to measure the quality and, more specifically, predict the tenderness of beef after aging,” he says. “We’re really excited about it. It’s a major breakthrough.”

Mr. Goldberg says there are strong market incentives for packers and marketing cooperatives to use BeefCam technology because it gives them a way to better differentiate premium from commodity grades of beef.

“It goes way beyond USDA’s quality grades to tell them something about tenderness that you just can’t get with a marbling score,” Mr. Goldberg says. “They will get objective feedback on quality, yield and tenderness that they didn’t have before.”

Tracking carcass value
A third component of the system is the Tagger Interface Module, designed to help packers refine their value-based marketing programs.

Packers typically sort carcasses based on grade and yield characteristics for various customers and marketing programs. This technology automates the process, assigning objective data to each carcass and assigning them to the marketing channels where they have the highest value. It also provides detailed records and reports useful to the packer in optimizing plant production systems.

Benefits to the industry
Once implemented by packers and marketing cooperatives, various components of the CVS system could enhance the level of value-based pricing available to producers. More accurate measures of carcass yield and beef palatability could allow packers to predict the absolute value of individual carcasses. Combined with individual animal identification and a good flow of information through the production chain, the system could provide a valuable tool for producers to improve the value of their cattle, along with an incentive to do so.

ConAgra Beef is preparing to test the video imaging equipment at its Greeley, Colo., beef facility. “We know the system does what the manufacturer says it will do, so the purpose of our test phase will be to determine how the system can work in a practical setting at line speeds,” says Bret Fox, ConAgra’s director of industry affairs and media relations.

“Initially, we’ll be using the system to further refine our carcass sorting so that we can optimize product utilization,” Mr. Fox says. Once we’ve seen how the system performs for those purposes, we’ll consider the role it can play in value determination and pricing.”

What remains to be developed, however, are additional branded beef programs and distribution channels. “The packers have to have an outlet that’s prepared to accept a premium product,” Mr. Goldberg says. “They have to have retailers lined up to sell the product. They have to have shelf space set aside for the product. They have to get a lot of people on board. These things take time. At the same time, they have to be careful not to denigrate the quality of their commodity product.”

But retailers may not wait for packers to utilize these systems. “Supermarkets have inquired about this technology,” Mr. Goldberg says. “They’d like to develop their own branding programs rather than rely on packers to do it.”

Regardless of when electronic grading technology is fully implemented, Dr. Belk says it behooves producers to pay close attention to the quality of cattle they’re producing. “Today, the good cattle subsidize the bad cattle.”

But once electronic grading comes into use, there will be increased pressure on producers to improve their management practices to maximize their quality and yield targets. “If you don’t know what your cattle do, then you’re going to get penalized,” he says.

At the same time, however, electronic grading technology provides a way for producers to learn from their mistakes.

“This could be very helpful if information is conveyed back to producers,” says Kansas State University Meat Scientist Michael Dikeman. “The question is, how much of that information will be readily passed back to producers?” Ultimately, he says, use of electronic grading could enable the industry to look beyond genetics in identifying beef management practices.