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Beef quality matters, but is that enough?

Quality steaks
Beef producers have made remarkable strides in producing a product that keeps consumers coming back. Can we continue the momentum?

Throughout our more than 50 years of existence, BEEF has championed consistency and quality in the product you produce. And you can take pride and give yourself a well-deserved pat on the back for making tremendous improvement in the quality and consistency of beef, especially in the last 10 years or so.

According to Mark McCully with Certified Angus Beef, that improvement has come through genetics, better understanding of how to optimally utilize growth technologies, some innovative steps at the packing plant, and an understanding by foodservice of how aging can improve tenderness.

“When we talk about consumer satisfaction, there’s really three components of palatability—we think about tenderness, we think about flavor, we think about juiciness,” he told the crowd at the recent Beef Improvement Federation (BIF) meeting in Loveland, Colo. We’ve pretty well solved the tenderness issue, he says, although there is always room for improvement.

Now, he says, marbling is the big driver in consumer satisfaction because of its impact on flavor and juiciness, at least when talking about the middle meats where steaks come from. And the beef business is making great gains in that area as well.

READ: Beef quality matters: top end gaining market share

Marbling is a key factor in how carcasses are graded. By the time 2017 bid farewell, fed cattle were grading close to 80% Choice and Prime. That’s been accomplished largely through genetics, with selection pressure being put on carcass quality as well as on-the-ground production traits. That doesn’t come without a cost—there are some genetic antagonisms with marbling and other traits, but nothing that can’t be managed.

As BEEF has reported many times, consumer beef demand has been remarkable. Is there a connection between higher-grading cattle and a more satisfied consumer? Without a doubt.

And those fed cattle that produce high quality carcasses feed just as efficiently as lower grading cattle, McCully says. He quotes data from Five Rivers, which looked at 600 pens of cattle. Sorting the cattle post-mortem into high grading and low grading carcasses, then looking at the feedyard performance, they found little difference in feed conversion and cost of gain.

After McCully stepped through some interesting statistics on the various aspects of quality beef, building a case that you are continuing to do a great job in your bull buying selections, he threw out an interesting idea—developing some sort of risk management tool that gives marketing flexibility for cattle feeders to use with cattle that have high marbling potential.

READ: We've come a long way in producing quality beef

For example, let’s look at Father’s Day, which traditionally is a high-demand time for quality steaks. Seasonally, there’s usually a big Choice-Select spread that time of year, which makes it attractive for cattle feeders to target high-marbling cattle for harvest then.

“I’ve had cattle feeders tell me that, talk about that benefit and how they think about it,” McCully says. While we’re in a time of low feed costs and extended days on feed, it won’t always be that way. So thinking long term, if we get to a time when economics dictate that we shorten days on feed, will we be able to keep a high-quality product in the pipeline for consumers?

I’ve always been an advocate of letting the market tell us what to do. And I think if we continue to do our part in producing cattle that not only work on the ranch but on the rail and most importantly, for the consumer, the premiums that we’re seeing for high-quality cattle will continue. But is that enough? Do cattle feeders need more risk management tools than a grid that encourages quality?

Let the discussion begin.


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