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Grading Needs To Be Revamped

David P. Price is a consulting nutritionist specializing in feedlot and range cattle


As we discussed last month, by happenstance the recession has changed cattle feeding. The “investor” cattle feeder is no longer present, which means fewer cattle will be hedged at a break-even. Concomitantly, this means more cattle will be placed on feed to make income. This is good news for cow-calf operators practising progressive breeding management, as their cattle are now more valuable — relatively speaking. The market has come down (due to the recession), but relative to ordinary cattle, they should be worth more.

In theory, feedlots or cattle feeders buying cattle should look for genetically superior cattle. These cattle will yield a greater return and in theory should bring a premium.

How long the “investor” will stay out is anybody’s guess. But there is something we can do to permanently increase the efficiency of cattle feeding, and permanently make genetically superior cattle more valuable. (No kidding.)

To understand what needs to be done we must first acknowledge that the current system lumps all cattle together as an average. The big packing houses have become big not by supplying superior meat but by selling cheaper meat. Because of this emphasis on cost, they are not set up to separate carcasses. As we explained in a much earlier article on Norwich Packers, the big packers can’t even separate cattle fed with Vitamin E. As most everybody knows, feeding 500 IUs of Vitamin E throughout the feeding period (or 1,000 IUs the last 60 days) results in meat that lasts longer in the retail case (maintains its cherry-red colour).

But it’s a practice seldom done because the big packers won’t pay the slight premium necessary to pay for the vitamin. (Thus smaller Canadian packers such as Norwich might be able to compete with meat that lasts longer at retail.)

To reiterate, the big packers have gotten big by producing meat cheaper. They buy cattle as cheap as they can; kill them as cheap as they can; process them as fast as they can; and sell them as quick as they can. Their processing efficiency is remarkable, but their ability to differentiate (or supply) quality meat is less than marginal. Why? Because they rely on government grading.

Conservative cattle feeders: Most every cattleman I know is conservative. Some are this way by heritage, but most with graying hair have learned the hard way you cannot rely on government to do anything sophisticated. Yet in the U. S. especially, the meat-grading system is considered the

Holy Grail. Speak out against it and you’re committing blasphemy.

The Canadian system is privately run but it is largely a copy of the American system. A system that was designed in 1916 and has not changed. A system designed at the turn of the 19th century to tell the difference between a Midwest corn-fed steer and a Texas Longhorn trailed up 1,500 miles to the Kansas City railheads.

The overt sign something is wrong is a survey done by the U. S. NCBA that shows 30 per cent of the high-quality beef a consumer buys results in disappointment. Why? Because the meat is tough. The fact is our system (both Canadian and U. S.) does not measure tenderness in any objective way. Our grading system assumes that essentially the only determinant of beef quality is marbling. That is categorically wrong.

Four different universities have determined that marbling account for eight per cent or less of what consumers perceive as quality. Prior management, age, breed and sex are all more important. Tenderness is most important of all, but our system does not measure tenderness.

Our system assumes marbling is an indicator of tenderness, but Oklahoma State University has determined the correlation between marbling and tenderness is zero. Let me repeat that. The correlation is zero, yet our whole system is based on it!

Proposal: This grading “system” has been around for over 90 years, and it is time to admit it doesn’t work. Clearly we need to abandon the system, but we also need to abandon government grading altogether.

We need to force the packers to grade their own meat. The word “force” was used because this is something they won’t want to do. Why? Two reasons. First of all it will mean additional responsibility. But most of all, it will take them away from their current business model.

Instead of buying cattle as cheap as they can, they will be forced to identify the best cattle. If they don’t, someone else will. Beyond that the meat buyer will be looking at the actual meat rather than the government grade (which assumes everything within the same grade is the same).

The advantage: If a consumer buys tough meat she won’t deem paying $7 per lb. for beef is a waste of money. She will decide XYZ beef is no good and buy ABC’s beef next time. Every other agricultural product from broilers to green beans is marketed that way.

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