The next time you think about beef quality, think marbling.
Simply put, the more marbling a carcass has (USDA Prime has the highest levels of marbling, followed by Choice and then Select), the better its eating quality and the higher its value.
Marbling is in demand because it gives beef its juiciness, aroma and unique flavor, and marbling plays a critical role in keeping beef competitive with poultry and pork because it differentiates and adds value to our products.
But in recent years, the industry has seen a dramatic reduction in the percentage of carcasses that grade Choice or Prime, and that has industry experts worried.
"The problem is that during the last 22 years, the adjusted share of cattle that reach Choice or Prime, has declined about 6 percent since 1986," says Dr. Larry Corah of Certified Angus Beef LLC (CAB). "Not surprisingly, consumer demand for beef entered a 20-year decline, only to be reversed by the influence of premium brands and utilization of new cuts and products in the past nine years."
1. Research shows a striking relationship between health and quality grade.
Simply put, if your calves get sick, they are less likely to achieve desirable quality grades.
In a recent study, calves treated two or more times for bovine respiratory disease (BRD) had an 18-percent reduction in ability to grade Low Choice when compared to healthy calves. The impact was a 44 percent reduction in Prime and 33 percent fewer Premium Choice grading cattle.
With this in mind, it's critical for producers to have an effective vaccination and preconditioning program in place to give their calves the best possible shot at good health and quality carcasses.
2. The growth of the ethanol industry has had a profound impact on the way we feed cattle – and the quality of beef.
In 1980 the U.S. produced 175 million gallons of ethanol. That may increase to nearly 7.5 billion gallons by 2012. Currently it takes about 17 percent of the nation's corn crop to fuel ethanol demand, so pressure on corn inventories (corn's high-starch aids in marbling deposition) and availability of ethanol by-products will certainly increase in the future.
Trouble is, feeding a finishing ration that includes 40 percent or more ethanol by-products, known as distillers grain, to cattle may actually reduce marbling. That's because of the reduced levels of starch in distilled products as compared to corn, says CAB's Mark McCully.
That means producers will need to keep an even closer eye in the future on production practices that encourage marbling, not detract from it.
3. Marbling development is a lifetime event. The long-held myth in cattle production was that marbling deposition occurred only during the feedlot phase of an animal's life, says Corah.
"Marbling actually begins during early fetal development, when cells begin to differentiate into muscle or fat," he says. "At birth, these cells continue to specialize and nutritional and environmental factors continue to influence the outcome."
Moreover, the time period near weaning seems to be an especially critical period in a calf's life because of the management events occurring.
"Management strategies during this time period-early weaning, creep feeding, delayed implanting, and maintaining health-all contribute to the subsequent quality grade and level of CAB® acceptance," Corah adds.
4. Use of growth-promoting implants is one of the most economical management practices used by beef producers, but they can have a detrimental effect on marbling.
Research has shown that the percentage of cattle grading Choice and higher can be reduced by 15-20 percentage points, with the percentage of CAB®-accepted cattle reduced by 8-10 percentage points, in aggressive implant programs, says McCully.
With this in mind, there are a couple of ways to avoid the negative implant effect on carcass quality, yet receive the positive implant benefits on growth.
First, you can limit or avoid the use of implants during the pre-weaning and growing phases.
Second, you can limit the number of times implanted during the feedlot phase to a single time and possibly delaying the timing of that implant administration.
Third, you can reduce the aggressiveness (potency) of implant programs.
Marbling is a very heritable trait, which means genetic selection has a significant effect on quality grade. It's critical that producers use bulls and breeds that are proven for marbling and incorporate those genetics into their cow herds.
Weaning calves earlier-as early as 3-4 months of age-has shown dramatic positive effects on quality grade.
In several studies, early-weaned calves often grade 50 to 75 percent or more average Choice and above, up to twice as many qualifying for added premiums when compared to traditionally weaned calves.
Early and steady use of a high grain ration also helped pave the way for improvements in marbling.
Wild or aggressive cattle don't marble as well, so they need to be culled from your herd.
Numerous studies have shown that heifers consistently out-grade steers by 8-10 percentage points in Choice levels, with CAB® acceptance rates 6-8 percentage points higher in heifers.
The cattle cycle and the resulting percent of heifers in the harvest mix influences grade and CAB® acceptance rates.
A Nebraska study showed that calves of common genetics split at weaning had drastically different quality grades based on the production system.
The calf feds had 32.5 percent grade Prime and Premium Choice versus only 1.2 percent for the yearlings that were placed on a winter growing diet where gains were only 1.16 lb./day for 197 days, prior to going onto finishing rations.
Equally important, 19 percent of the yearling carcasses were classified as "tough" by a sensory panel versus zero for the calf feds.
CAB data also suggest calves may now slightly out-grade yearlings. In 2005, calves averaged 13.9 percent CAB® acceptance rate while yearlings were at 13.0 percent.
A CAB analysis found that the correlation between marbling and ribeye area is -0.2 (negative). This means selection pressure for muscling can reduce marbling levels.
"However, the potential exists for selective breeding to overcome this antagonism. Just as random genetic selection for yearling weight increases birth weight, strategic genetic selection can increase yearling weight while holding birth weight constant," says Corah. "There are opportunities to do the same with marbling and muscle genetics."
Producers should be aware that historically, the Choice-Select spread has been at its widest in May and June. That's when consumer demand for beef is at a seasonal high, because that's when the kickoff for the summer barbecuing season begins.
In recent years, Choice-quality carcasses have often brought as much as $200 more per head than Select-quality carcasses. The value difference between them is referred to as the Choice-Select spread.
That's good news for most producers who calve in the early spring, which means cattle typically go to the packing plant in May and June the following year, if they forego the yearling phase.
This gives these producers a genuine opportunity to capitalize on the seasonality of the Choice-Select spread, provided they have the right kind of cattle that have the genetics for marbling. This is another reason for producers to concentrate on developing the genetics to take advantage of the spread between Choice and Select cattle.
In recent years, premium branded programs have claimed most Choice cattle, so that by 2008, an estimated 85% of all "Choice" cattle are only Low Choice. Demand for Premium Choice and Prime follows this same seasonal pattern.
This article was prepared in cooperation with Beef Northwest Feeders of North Powder, Ore., and Certified Angus Beef. Special thanks to CAB's Dr. Larry Corah, Mark McCully and Steve Suther, who provided much of the information for this article. For more information about CAB, please visit www.certifiedangusbeef.com. You can also learn more about Beef Northwest by visiting www.beefnw.com.