By Mark McCully, Certified Angus Beef LLC vice president, supply
“Cattle have to be 51% black.” “Is it the hair or the hide or both?” “It’s the average of a pen, so if more than half of them are black, the whole pen qualifies.” “What if a few are Holstein – just add up the spots and see if you get to more than 51%? If they have enough black, they’re in.”
We’ve probably heard them all—stories about what it takes to qualify for an Angus brand. Some of the old myths resurfaced with recent price volatility in the fed Holstein market.
Angus brands dominate the beef market today with two-thirds of more than 140 USDA-certified brands, but where did it all start and what does it really take to qualify?
What’s an Angus?
Most producers know the original is the Certified Angus Beef (CAB) brand, which has worked collaboratively with USDA since the late 1970s. The first order of business was finding a practical way to identify cattle of Angus influence, otherwise known as Angus type.
Knowing Angus crosses could include a white face, underline or some other white markings, “predominantly solid black” was agreed upon. USDA required a more objective measure for application in the field, so “51% or greater” was added as a further definition for “predominantly.” That first specification was called the GL1 (Government Live 1), used only for CAB.
Initially and until 1994, dairy type and bos indicus influence were evaluated as part of the live animal specification, according to Larry Meadows, USDA associate deputy administrator. However, that was always applied post-harvest, per animal, as hides were removed. Live cattle in pens were never evaluated for Angus brands.
In 1994, as dairy and bos indicus calls moved to carcass specifications, GL1 was based solely on “predominantly solid black.”
CAB was growing rapidly by 1996. Being asked to certify other Angus brands, USDA used GL1 for the template to create Government Live Angus (GLA) as the phenotypic standard for all Angus certified programs. G1 still refers to CAB carcass specifications; many others have come and gone to arrive at today’s 83 G-Schedules for 146 programs that include 97 Angus.
Government graders make the call
It may sound simple, but identification of Angus-type cattle at harvest takes specially-trained plant employees with oversight by USDA graders. The government graders used to move back and forward on the line to physically monitor the GLA application.
To enhance food safety—and that for employees—today’s plants are outfitted with video cameras by which USDA graders monitor the A-stamp application from the grading office. The graders have ultimate authority and will suspend certification programs if non-compliance is found in the GLA application.
That involves stopping the lines and huge economic losses going forward, not a risk any packer takes on.
When a harvested animal is identified as Angus-type, an A stamp is applied to the round, or some other mark such as ink on the hocks. The grading stand later considers each carcass marked to determine if each is eligible to evaluate for an Angus program, from G1 on up.
While the CAB brand has stringent quality standards that favor high-percentage Angus cattle, there’s a wide spectrum of quality under Angus brands, from CAB Prime down to other Angus that is No Roll and Commercial.
No grids have an “Angus premium.” CAB is by far the quality leader that returns more than $1 million each week in grid premiums. No other Angus brand creates that kind of economic incentive for cattlemen.
Still, misperceptions persist at every stage of the beef supply chain from ranch to rail and beyond. The 51% figure has long been misquoted or noted in dismissal.
The goal was never to create a definition around a specific percentage of Angus heritage. The producers who dreamed of starting CAB knew that wasn’t practical, nor did it do anything to guarantee a better eating experience.
Predominantly solid black was and is a practical solution for our complex supply chains. It practically identifies those cattle of Angus influence but doesn’t add unnecessary cost or burden to producers trying to add value to their cattle. That approach has allowed for a more inclusive and scalable program.
In reality, only a tiny fraction of cattle identified as Angus-type today are not solid black, black baldies or brockle-faced. A 2017 survey of nearly 180,000 feedlot cattle in the Plains showed more than 99% that could be considered for Angus programs had more than 75% solid black hides.
The fanciful idea that adding up the spots may allow Holsteins to qualify resurfaced after last winter’s market setback. Reduced demand for fed Holsteins stemmed from a major retailer excluding Holstein beef from its orders, completely unrelated to their continuing exclusion from Angus programs. Dairy-influence cattle have always been removed from CAB.
In the first place, most fed Holsteins come to packing plant in lots, not comingled with beef-type cattle. Those trained to apply the GLA stamp know to put it away for such lots. In the few mixed lots, the GLA requirement of “solid black hide” disallows adding up the spots. What’s more, the CAB brand has a beef-type muscling specification among its 10 that further safeguards against dairy-type cattle (Figure 1).
Reminding folks why our brand starts with the phenotypic screen for solid black hides won’t end the idle talk, but most people like to know what they’re talking about. So remember, it’s not really the hide color, but continuously improving Angus genetics for more than a decade that allowed for 10 consecutive years of CAB brand record sales.