North American beef quality sets industries apart

Prime Cuts with Steve Kay

The quality seen in the North American beef supply continues to improve.

The Canadian and U.S. beef industries have made great strides over the past 20 years in improving the quality of the beef they produce. That is paying excellent dividends in both their domestic and export markets. While Brazil is the world’s largest beef exporter, beef from North America is sought after globally and attracts a premium over virtually all other beef.

The quality of the beef the U.S. produces has improved significantly in just the last five years, as evidenced by the percentage of USDA Prime and Choice beef now produced. Cattle graded a new combined record of 83.02 per cent USDA Prime and Choice for the week ended January 25. Cattle graded 9.26 per cent Prime, the 12th week in a row above nine per cent, and 73.76 per cent Choice. They graded 14.190 per cent Select (the third quality grade). Cattle in all of 2018 graded 7.98 per cent Prime and 71.39 per cent Choice, up 1.46 percentage points from 2017.

These are phenomenal numbers when one considers that only five years ago, cattle graded four to five per cent Prime and around 67 per cent Choice. Yet cattle feeders and packers expect grading percentages to remain high this year for several reasons. The U.S. beef cow herd now contains its highest quality genetics in the industry’s history. That is because cow-calf producers forced to reduce their herds because of drought from 2010 to 2012 sold their poorest cows and then rebuilt their herds with much better genetics.

Another reason is that feedlot operators are using more technologies to track how cattle are performing on feed. Also, is that demand for Prime and Choice beef has continued to increase at the expense of Select beef. Another factor is that last year saw little or no dip in grading percentages in April-June because of an expected seasonal increase in calf-fed cattle in the mix. Either there were fewer of these cattle on feed than in prior years or they were fed longer and graded better.

The high grading percentages mean the industry in 2018 produced just over 17.67 billion pounds on a carcass weight basis of Prime and Choice beef from fed steers and heifers. The U.S. beef industry is both producing the highest quality beef in its history and remains the global giant in producing such beef.

Although well behind the U.S. in terms of tonnage, Canada is the world’s second largest producer of high-quality beef. The amount it produces annually is likely to increase in the future because Canada has updated its beef yield standards to mirror those in the U.S. As of January 15, Canada’s standards changed to five yield classes, replacing the former three classes. The new classes mark one of the biggest changes in the Canadian beef industry for some years, as they will change the type of cattle the industry produces, say analysts. The change will encourage the industry, from the seedstock level on, to produce leaner carcasses and eliminate cattle that produce the most fat, they say.

The change will facilitate further segregation of carcasses by packers for the cutting floor, which should result in higher processing efficiencies, says the Canadian Beef Grading Agency. It will also facilitate the identification of cattle that were inefficient in the feedlot (producing more fat than lean as they increased weight) and facilitate future discussion for feeding efficiencies. From a cow-calf perspective, when feedback is communicated from feedlots regarding yield performance, it should facilitate the identification of more desirable genetics, says the agency. Better genetics were the foundation on which the U.S. increased its production of Prime and Choice. Canada can expect something similar to occur.

About the author


A North American view of the meat industry. Steve Kay is publisher and editor of Cattle Buyers Weekly.

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