There are a multitude of pre-harvest management practices that can influence beef quality, but with wide variations in production systems and genetics, the beef industry still struggles with a carcass supply that has a wide degree of disparity.
The National Beef Quality Audits have provided a snapshot over the last two decades of the status of the nation’s beef supply. According to the research results, there are four primary areas where carcasses are missing market targets. These “non-conformers” result in millions of dollars in lost revenue.
Weight: Carcasses that are too heavy mean that cuts are too large for certain applications.
Composition: Yield Grade 4 and 5 carcasses that require too much trim and have excess seam fat.
Color: Dark cutters or carcasses with less than desirable muscle color.
Quality: Carcasses that fall into lower grades.
In 2005, the National Beef Quality Audit found that 5.4 percent of the carcasses evaluated were USDA Standard or lower in quality grade, over 14 percent were Yield Grade 4 or 5, almost 2 percent were considered dark cutters, and 5 percent were too heavy.
In fact, according to data presented at the checkoff-funded Non-Conforming Beef Research Summit in June 2007, all four of the National Beef Quality Audits listed excess external fat, inadequate tenderness, insufficient marbling and excess carcass and cut weights as among the top-10 quality challenges identified.
Carcass size can be a challenge as producers are typically rewarded on weight, so there is an incentive to get cattle too heavy.
“Right now the average is about 782 pounds, or 843 for just steer carcasses, and it is going up every year with no end in sight,” says Bucky Gwartney, executive director, product enhancement research for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. “The primary problem with heavyweight carcasses is large ribeyes and getting the proper portion control. This is mentioned a lot by foodservice operators.”
Some cuts actually benefit from larger than average carcass size, according to Daryl Tatum, professor of animal science at Colorado State University. “During the Non-Conforming Beef Research Summit, it became evident from the discussion that size is really only a problem for the ribeye, strip loin and T-bone. The end-users that cut portion-sized steaks indicated that larger cattle actually produced tenderloins that were more desirable in size. The beef value cuts, such as the Flat Iron, are also more desirable in terms of size when they are sourced from heavier carcasses.”