U.S. cattlemen lose almost $4 billion annually because of inconsistent quality.
That translates to about $100 per head potential loss in value for every beef steer or heifer marketed in the United States, says Mike De La Zerda, beef quality manager for the Texas Beef Council.
De La Zerda recently addressed the Denton County, Texas, Cattle Association and pointed out areas where ranchers can save money or take advantage of potential market premiums.
He said losses come from meat yield, $50.96; taste, $24.45; control weight, $6.46; and management, $18.23. He said factors that influence beef quality include genetics, environment and management practices.
A 1995 National Beef Quality Audit (NBQA) identified the five concerns of packers as: lack of uniformity, liver condemnation, hide damage, bruise damage and dark cutters and external fat.
“Based on reports from more than 100 people interviewed, beef's greatest faults were inconsistency, fatness and price,” De La Zerda said.
Ranchers hold the keys to some quality issues. “Cattlemen should learn how their calves perform after they leave the ranch,” De La Zerda said.
He suggested they follow calves' progress to make certain the animals have a good feedlot health record; gain more than three pounds per day in the feedlot; more than 50 percent grade Choice; none grade USDA Standard; a high percentage of carcasses yield grade 2; and no injection blemishes appear.
“Attention to quality can maximize the value of calves, minimize quality defects and enhance consumer confidence in beef,” De La Zerda said.
Management, he said, provides the basis for quality beef.
“Injection site blemishes cause problems but are not as big a concern as they once were,” he said. “Ranchers have changed to a recommended injection site in the neck area instead of on the upper butt.”
Healthy calves, he said, also add value. A Texas A&M “Ranch to Rail Program” analysis shows that healthy calves produced an additional $117.42 compared to sick steers in a 1996-97 study. A 1997-98 survey showed a $65.39 advantage for healthy calves.
“Calves that were not sick were worth potentially $10.55 per hundredweight as feeder cattle.”
According to Texas Beef Council reports, healthy calves perform better later in life, particularly as stocker/feeders. And superior grades show better in healthy calves compared to unhealthy ones.
Also, back grounded and preconditioned calves may generate premiums if marketed aggressively in selected markets.
Branding site also affects quality. De La Zerda said a side brand makes the hide considerably less valuable.
“Manufacturers who use cow hides for car seats, for instance, don't want a brand in the center of the hide,” he said.
Parasites, including grubs, lice, mange and biting flies, also decrease hide value. Potential industry loss from damaged hides could be more than $648 million annually.
Respiratory diseases may take another $115 million a year from the cattle industry.
De La Zerda said ranchers could do a great deal to improve calf health and value with a proven management system, starting with two to four-month old animals.
The program includes vaccinations, castrating, dehorning, implanting approved products, proper branding, and deworming.
De La Zerda said selecting proper genetics also pays dividends for ranchers.
“The difference in per head net return between the top 10 percent and the bottom 10 percent of steers consigned to the 1995 Ranch to Rail Program was $375.55, because of management and selection,” he said.
Surveys show that ranchers lose $138 per head to non-conforming cattle and poor management practices. A significant portion of the loss is due to genetics.
“Select sires for optimum performance,” De La Zerda said.
Culling based on reproductive performance must be virtually unforgiving for the cowherd, he said.
Controlled breeding and calving seasons.
Pregnancy tests and culling non-bred cows and late calvers.
Select for an average 12-month calving interval.
Use calving pastures and observe carefully, especially for heifers.
Select for calving ease as well as for carcass and performance traits.
Manage for optimum body score.
Maintain cowherd records and use them to cull low producing cows.
Identify and cull cows that produce inconsistent and inferior calves.
Some 15 percent of the nation's cowherd does not calve each year, costing a rancher an average of $60 per head in lost maintenance expense.
Selecting replacement heifers also affects the final product. A selection and management program for heifers should include:
Breed type and frame size adapted to a specific ranching operation.
Optimum weight gains.
Born in the first 45 days of the calving season.
Develop heifers to weigh at least 65 percent of mature weight at 14 months.
Develop bred heifers to weigh 90 percent of mature weight at calving.
Breed 30 to 45 days before the mature cowherd.
Vaccinate for brucellosis before 10 months of age.
Breed heifers to bulls with calving ease traits (low actual birth weight).
Separate heifers from cows and observe calving.
Assist in calving if necessary.
De La Zerda said ranchers must know what kind of carcasses they send to market and learn to take advantage of marketable quality traits and eliminate traits that cost money. He said an animal with a base price of $100 per hundredweight with a yield grade of 5 and with problems such as dark cutter could result in $45 in discounts and a $55 per hundredweight price.
On the other hand, an animal with the same base price and top yield and quality grades could add as much as $45 in premiums, resulting in a $145 price.
“There is a reward for quality,” he said.