Backfat, quality grade and the ideal beef end point

Jun 13, 2014
by WLJ

If you give most cattle more time and feed, they will pay you back in profit, especially when the replacements for those cattle will cost more than the last turn.

Traditionally, cattle feeders have estimated external fat thickness over the12th rib as one measure of finish, and although some research and carcass contests still ship cattle to the packer as soon as 0.3 inches, the norm has reached nearly twice that. Logic supports the trend.

“Finishing most cattle to anything less than a half inch of backfat is leaving money on the table,” says Certified Angus Beef LLC (CAB) Vice President Larry Corah. “Under-finishing is particularly inefficient when cattle have the potential to achieve premium levels of marbling.”

Spanning decades, Corah says “consist” data from CAB licensed packers shows a typical pen-average fat thickness of 0.52-0.54 inches. The range in groups is less than a quarter inch to more than an inch.

“Now, with cost of gain dipping below 90 cents per hundredweight on good cattle in certain regions of the feeding belt and cattle selling for $1.40-1.50 or wherever they settle, cattle feeders are rethinking target weights and the fat cover endpoint,” he says.

Carcasses at or below 0.4 inch of fat cover tend toward lower marbling and quality grades (see Table 1). Evidence also suggests more cattle today can be fed to 0.6 inch of fat cover before Yield Grade (YG) 4 discounts begin overtaking quality premiums. Earlier CAB surveys found little problem at 0.59, but the other side of 0.6 starts to build up YG4s.

“Quality grade improves dramatically as weight and fat cover increase beyond last century’s targets, according to the cattle currently going through our packinghouses,” Corah says. “The share of Choice and Prime increased 10.9 percentage points and CAB brand acceptance rates moved up 7.5 points when fat cover increased from an average of 0.4-0.6 inches.”

He notes many feedlots have set a YG3 target and allow more YG4 discounts because that optimizes profit.

“One leading packer says within its database, each increase in YG score adds 20-25 pounds of carcass weight while increasing marbling score 30-40 points,” Corah says. For example, Choice went from 65 percent at YG2 to 92 percent at YG4, on average. The ideal for profit was a YG3, but a YG4 brought in more than $100/head above a YG2 after all discounts and premiums.

“But like all things, some moderation is needed. Heavyweight discounts add to the YG4 dock to keep a practical lid on the trend, and those who market to consumers certainly do not want larger cuts,” he says.

Feeding partners weigh in

A survey of CAB partner feedlots confirms the prevalence of a YG3 target, but as Karl Hess, Lancaster, PA, puts it, “If we don’t have a YG4, we didn’t feed long enough, and if we don’t have a Select, we didn’t sort hard enough.”

Geoff Shinn, Performance Blenders, Jackson, MO, points out, “Fat cover and marbling are not directly correlated. You can have externally fat cattle that won’t marble. Knowing their genetic potential is the most important, then days on feed and finally, the energy and nutrient-density of the ration.”

Dale Moore, Cattleman’s Choice Feedyard, Gage, OK, agrees backfat alone means little. “A truly finished animal is going to grade what he is capable of at the time of harvest. We can alter that by longer feeding for a little more marbling or shorter to decrease YG issues, but if he is finished, that backfat will probably be 0.5-0.6.”

Sam Hands, Triangle H, Garden City, KS, says dressing percentage is becoming a more important factor in feeding to an end point packers want. “But it can be a trap if you get too many YG4s on a load with great dressed yield. With the shortage of numbers, dressing percent will continue as a driver.”

Allan Sents, McPherson County Feeders, Marquette, KS, is among those who do consider fat thickness a primary indicator.

“That range of 0.5-0.6 is our target and we pretty routinely hit an average between 0.5 and 0.55 inches—that’s probably up 0.05 in the last five years with heavier carcasses and more YG4s allowed.” Cattle may also be fed a little longer going into favorable weather.

Several feedlots rely on ultrasound, which includes backfat in the equation. As one feeder points out, grid sellers may be called “price takers,” but it puts much more weight on knowing genetic potential of cattle to earn premiums.

Terry Beller, Lindsey, NE, cattle feeder sorts visually and sells 70 percent on grids. He expects 100 percent Choice or better, even if outliers may fall short, and says, “My returns usually show the percent Prime and YG4 running hand in hand.” — WLJ