Late maturing cattle producing fat cattle that won’t grade

Staff report

DENVER: Beef buyers are facing a growing problem due to the shift to late-maturing, low-fat cattle genetics that grow rapidly without marbling.

More and more cattle fatten excessively on the outside but do not marble on the inside even after long periods of grain feeding.

This creates a high labor cost for abattoirs to trim the outside fat and yet the meat brings a discounted price.

Marbling is only created when the animal reaches its physiologically mature size. Many of today’s cattle have a physiological mature size larger than beef buyers want.

Due to the shortage of feeder cattle in the USA since restriction of Canadian cattle, cattle feeders have put cattle on feed at lighter weights than normal to keep capacity up and grain usage up.

Industrial feedyards normally do not own the cattle they feed and so are primarily interested in keeping feed consumption (sales) up.

This has resulted in the animals fattening on the outside before they reach the size required for them to marble.

Cattle-Fax in Englewood, Colorado, said the percent of Yield Grade 4 cattle continues to increase and has set a new high in Nebraska, Kansas and Texas since at least 2001.

However the percent of Choice grade cattle has remained the same in Nebraska and Kansas and has actually fallen in Texas.

Steers typically marble at around 100 pounds heavier than their mothers. With more and more cows now weighing in excess of 1500 pounds and yet slaughter weights remaining in the 1200 pound range, the natural result is fewer cattle grading Choice.

In 2005, this trend toward fewer Choice cattle appears to have worsened considerably.

Many abattoirs are growing increasingly concerned because the percent of Choice grade cattle dropped nearly 10 percentage points in Texas and Kansas this past summer.

In October, The Wall Street Journal had a long article on the negative effect the drop in marbled beef is having on top-end steakhouses.

While Choice is getting scarce, Prime grade beef is almost non-existent.

It now costs a steakhouse more than $20 to buy the dry-aged 16 ounce USDA Prime strip steak that is the upscale steakhouse cornerstone.

These steaks currently sell for between $35 and $45 cooked and served or approximately their cost to the restaurant.

Many steakhouses now are saying that the “prime beef” mentioned in their menu does not refer to the USDA grade used but is a mere advertising term and admit they have substituted USDA Choice.

They also encourage diners to order Filet Mignon or tenderloin which has a much higher margin than the New York strips or Porterhouses because it can come from any grade cattle. Tenderloin is not graded because it normally does not have marbling.

The steakhouses have also tried to lower their costs by buying smaller cuts. Unfortunately, the same shift to late maturity that is making marbling rare has made smaller framed cattle even rarer.

As a result, many of today’s ribeyes are often too large for the plate and are expected to be getting even larger in coming years.

Steakhouse chefs say that the best steaks for them are small steaks cut thick. It is almost impossible to cook a thin steak to medium rare at the 900 degree F temperatures they commonly use to shorten preparation time.

Ruth’s Chris steakhouse uses a super-hot 1800 degrees to purposely char the surface of the steak.

This surface charing does not improve the eating quality but makes the steak look different from that cooked at home. Most home ovens only reach 600 degrees. Prime beef has traditionally come by growing early-maturing English-breed cattle to physiological maturity on grass and then feeding them whole-shelled corn for 100 days to produce extreme intra-muscular marbling.

A frame 4, easily fattened, steer would be the ideal genetic package for high-end steakhouse beef.

Interestingly, the type of cattle genetics needed for Prime grade steakhouse beef are exactly what is needed for Choice grade grassfed beef.

Despite the problems large, late maturing cattle are causing their beef buyers, they still return the maximum profit to the feedlots because they maximize grain consumption and sales per head.

As a result, changing the genetic direction toward ever-larger cattle will be difficult.

Tod Kalous, an analyst with Cattle-Fax, said there are two questions the industry needed to consider.

“Can we continue to make carcasses bigger and fatter? At what point will carcasses be too big, if ever?”

© by The Stockman Grass Farmer

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