Kerri Gehring is the president/CEO of the International HACCP Alliance and is a professor in the Dept. of Animal Science at Texas A&M Univ. Jeff Savell is University Distinguished Professor, Regents Professor, and E.M. “Manny” Rosenthal Chairholder in the Dept. of Animal Science at Texas A&M Univ.

The National Beef Quality Audits, conducted on behalf of The Beef Checkoff by a collaborative research team, have been conducted about every five years since 1991. The past two audits collected information from the camera-grading instruments used by packers, and the most recent audit included data from over 4.5 million carcasses that were evaluated during 2016. Never has so much information on carcass characteristics been made available to those interested in the quality and yield aspects of beef.

US beef packing plants began implementing instrument grading in the early part of the 21st century. Some plants use the technology to officially grade beef carcasses. Other plants collect camera grading information, but official grades are still assigned by US Dept. of Agriculture (USDA) meat graders. Regardless of the scenario, the availability of data about beef collected by these systems provides a unique opportunity to learn more about beef.

Man versus machine

One of the most frequently asked questions about instrument grading of beef is how it compares to the traditional information determined by USDA graders. We are pleased to report that information gathered by the USDA grading supervisors during the in-plant phase of the audit was very close to that from the instrument assessment. What may be the most incredible part of this comparison is that marbling scores were virtually identical between the two. Having the confidence in instrument grading verified through this extensive third-party activity provides the beef industry solid support for using this technology to evaluate these important value-determining traits.

Seasonality of beef grades

This was the first audit that we reported monthly grade information and evaluated how the Prime and Choice grading percentages changed over the year. The grading percentages for most months were relatively similar with the exception of February, which was the highest numerically, and August, which was the lowest numerically. How carcasses grade during the year is always a topic of discussion among cattle feeders and beef packers. Time on feed, corn prices, calves versus yearlings, type of cattle being fed and weather conditions are some of the factors that seem to affect how well carcasses grade. However, there is never an easy answer when actual grading of beef carcasses falls short of the expected grading of cattle purchased.

The percentages of carcasses that grade Choice or higher impact the marketability of beef and often drive the Choice/Select spread, the price/cwt difference between the Choice and Select carcass cutouts. When there is a strong demand for Choice-or-higher beef for the domestic and export markets, beef packers have greater flexibility in filling customer orders. When the Choice-or-higher grade percentages go down even slightly, the inability of beef packers to meet the demand creates some shortages for customer orders and often drive the Choice/Select spread to greater differences than the seasonal ones we most often observe.With respect to Prime, carcasses graded around the 4.5 percent range. This number was higher than in previous audits. Strong demand for rib, loin, and briskets from Prime carcasses enhances the cutout value and potential profitability of these carcasses for the beef packer. One problem area, though, with the percentage of carcasses that grade Prime is the variability from the low to high months. The summer months were among the lowest months numerically (June: 3.3 percent; July: 3.3 percent; August: 3.0 percent), at a time when the summer grilling season is in full swing. Additionally, the difference between the low (3 percent) and high (5 percent) months in Prime shows how availability and market demands can influence price

volatility of Prime beef.

Days of the week matter

One very interesting factor this dataset allowed us to evaluate was to see how the day of the week impacted carcass grading. The length of time that beef carcasses are chilled before grading plays a role in how the ribeyes will look when ribbed for evaluation. Packers know that beef carcasses from cattle slaughtered on Fridays or Saturdays and graded on Mondays have the best grading performance when all other factors (cattle types, time on feed, etc.) are held constant. These carcasses often are referred to as “weekend cattle” because of their unique grading ability. We are aware of one packer who always harvests cattle for its highly marbled branded program on Fridays to allow carcasses the benefit of the weekend chill time. We do not know if other programs are designed to benefit from this extended chilling, but the information from the instrument-assessment phase of the audit clearly shows that the day of the week when carcasses are graded impacts the percentages of Prime and Choice carcasses. As would be expected, the greatest percentage of Prime and Choice carcasses were from Monday’s grading. The percentage of Prime carcasses (6.4 percent) was much greater than the other days. Beef packing plants typically run five to six days a week, and there is only one Monday. However, emulating the weekend chill process for certain programs might be financially worthwhile for some packers.

These are just some of the highlights from the instrument-grading data. More complete details and data are reported in Boykin et al., J. Anim. Sci., 95:2993-3002 doi: 10.2527/jas2017.1543.