Is Improving Beef Quality Free?
By Gilda V. Bryant
Genomics, the study of the entire set of genes in living organisms, such as beef cattle, has allowed producers to examine DNA profiles and calculate expected progeny differences (EPDs). Genetically enhanced-EPDs (GE-EPDs) have added to the power and precision of selection tools when using genomic technology. Ranchers can accurately breed for individual animal traits, such as marbling, calving ease, and carcass merit, at a much faster pace and a younger age, improving the herd more quickly.
Customer demand has driven the improvement of beef quality. Several nonprofit organizations research market trends to determine the attributes that buyers prefer in cuts of beef.
Meat scientists at universities have studied the science behind beef appearance, tenderness, taste, and other criteria for decades. As a result, cattlemen have learned what steps to take at the production level to change beef characteristics for the increased eating satisfaction of the consumer.
Trade organizations, including the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA), and the North American Meat Institute (NAMI), examine the products that shoppers are buying.
This includes checking scanned data at grocery stores to determine what consumers are purchasing, and the items they select to go with beef products. This research provides valuable information to beef producers.
“Data analytics and the immense amount of data we have today are important to a better understanding of our beef consumer,” says Mark McCully, vice-president of production at Certified Angus Beef® LLC (CAB).
“We can obtain more insight and knowledge about what the consumer says he or she wants, and in fact, what his or her ultimate habits and preferences are, as well as their spending habits and beef cut preferences.”
Breed associations and meat companies now promote branding, such as Swift Angus Select®, Certified Hereford Beef®, or 44 Farms®. CAB, for example, works with its foodservice and retail partners.
“We look at lots of information to help grow demand, ultimately providing consumers what they are looking for,” McCully shares. “That may be the convenience, new and innovative recipes, or international flavors. Understanding their culinary tastes and providing services and tools for the businesses we partner with to meet those demands will ultimately grow the demand for beef.”
Twenty years ago, few retailers or foodservice operators had access to premium Choice, Prime, or CAB. Only a limited number of consumers had the luxury of experiencing quality cuts of beef. The demand for a better product has been there for some time. McCully says that market signals have encouraged cattlemen to produce superior beef.
“That is what we have today — cattlemen who intentionally responded to those signals,” McCully observes. “At the same time, we have rebuilt the cow herd, so we have larger supplies, and a higher percentage of those are superior cuts. We now have businesses, such as Costco and Walmart, offering premium quality beef to customers who did not have access to it before. As a result, more buyers are experiencing it for the first time, and they want more.”
In the past, traditional grocery stores or retailers would have had Choice beef. Thanks to an enormous market shift, retailers that sold Choice are now selling CAB or Premium Choice. Those that sold CAB and Premium Choice now sell more CAB-brand Prime and USDA Prime cuts. The demand the producers see also allows them to sell their cattle at premium prices.
This consumer craving for quality beef has also transferred to international sales. The American global competitive advantage in beef is a result of producing a highly-marbled product. Studies suggest that this is the preferred cut for international consumers, especially for Pacific Rim buyers and their cooking styles. The international market demands premium Choice and Prime beef cuts.
Four decades ago, beef was generic. There were no brands or real sorting of beef products. Retailers combined Premium products with those of lower quality, and customers were often disappointed with the mixture they purchased.
Ranchers who produced superior animals were not duly compensated. Today, end users can order the precise grade and specifications they prefer. There are hundreds of brands in the marketplace, each with specific requirements regarding not only carcass quality but also size, weight, and other criteria.
CAB was the first USDA-certified branded beef program in the U.S. The 40-year-old brand has received credit for leading other programs to develop requirements based on science and product value to the consumer, and price those products accordingly. That has driven the differentiation of beef and has given way to value-based marketing systems and grids. This system has given cattlemen a more defined target.
Ask questions, work backward
One business strategy McCully recommends is that ranchers learn what consumers demand and work backward. By keeping the ultimate buyer in mind when designing a product, beef producers change their mindsets. Over the last 20 to 30 years, quality levels have improved because cattlemen have thought about their customers differently.
They began by asking questions. What does the consumer want to eat? What will the buyer pay for? Which cooking method does the customer want to use? How can ranchers produce a beef product cost-effectively that still ensures a profit?
McCully recommends that producers think about another industry, for instance, automotive air conditioning units. The customer is the car manufacturer; however, the way that the AC unit works for the end user dictates the success of the builder. McCully encourages ranchers to consider that buyer demand will drive future beef quality.
“Today’s consumer enjoys the higher-quality marbling products we are providing,” McCully says. “I don’t think they want to return to the inconsistency we had decades ago. The demand is strong; I believe it will only continue to grow. They look at brands like CAB to help them sort through complicated meat cases. We have all these cuts, grades, and preparation techniques that most consumers struggle to understand. They rely on a brand to help navigate the purchase. When a product is delivered consistently, they continue to return to it. That will continue in the future.”
In March, for example, CAB enjoyed one of the top sales months in the history of the brand, and it has also benefited from 13 consecutive years of growth. Since customers want to roast less and grill more, McCully predicts a growing demand for additional grilling cuts with more marbling, which can be placed directly on the high heat of a grill.
Surprisingly, there is more demand centered on ground beef. This kitchen staple is no longer grade neutral. The rising demand for Prime ground beef is a fast-growing category. These products all support ranchers who produce carcasses with more marbling.
“Quality equals marbling,” McCully argues. “That is the largest driver of eating satisfaction by far. That is why our quality grading system is based on it. The marbling trait is highly inheritable, something we can produce and select for. We know a lot about how to manage cattle to either potentially influence or remove marbling.”
High-grading cattle show production efficiencies
Research shows high-grading feedyard cattle are efficient, growing quickly without sacrificing pounds or performance.
There are few, if any, negative correlations between marbling and maternal traits such as fertility or cow longevity.
Ranchers can make improvements without sacrificing the cow herd. McCully calls this a free tradeoff. According to available data, increasing marbling has not raised the cost of production and that is great news for ranchers.
McCully sees few, if any, tradeoffs when improving beef quality. He notes that the maternal traits of milk and marbling are highly correlated. For example, if a producer ignores the trait for milk, selecting only for marbling, milk will increase. That could be a problem in a limited feed situation. This trait allows ranchers to place selection pressure for high marbling and a threshold on milk quantities. Ranchers should know about this milk-marbling correlation as they build their breeding programs.
“The marketplace will continue to be more branded,” McCully concludes. “It is not just about beef retailers and restaurants responding to the wants and needs of their patrons. Producing cattle to fit those markets will be important to the long-term profitability of a cattleman’s operation. From our vantage point, quality or improving the marbling in your cow herd and calf crop is not difficult, nor is it expensive. Today, high-quality beef with high marbling and grading potential are expectations. Ranchers using these tools will continue to have a lot of success and a marketing advantage. Be aware that the market continues to change. We cannot become complacent. We must continue to pay attention to market signals and produce beef for that ultimate consumer.”
The economical switch to higher-quality beef is a result of many factors. University meat scientists and breed association marketing gurus have shared the latest and best information with cattlemen. The science and technology of genomics has greatly enhanced marbling and carcass merit, and by driving demand for better quality cuts of beef, consumers have encouraged ranchers to improve their herds with an eye to the future.
Is Improving Beef Quality Free? is excerpted from the October 2019 issue of The Cattleman magazine. Join today to start your subscription.