Getting cattle to hit the higher quality grades takes effort at every link in the production system.

In a recent research review, Certified Angus Beef LLC (CAB) vice president Larry Corah and supply development director Mark McCully looked at early management factors that affect one of the traits that earn higher quality grades: marbling, or the intramuscular flavor fat.

"People used to think marbling was something that only happened in the feedlot," says McCully. "But research shows targeting a high-quality beef market should begin long before that."

Cells begin developing into either muscle or fat, before a calf is even born. Once the calf hits the ground, the fat cells start to further differentiate into subcutaneous fat (back fat) and marbling.

"We blame a lot on genetics, but it's management," says Francis Fluharty, animal scientist at The Ohio State University.

Nutrition, from mid-gestation on, has a significant effect on how cells develop, according to Fluharty.

"Pre-partum nutrition is really important, because the cow sets up the calf's ability to marble," Fluharty says. "In addition to genetics, the cow's body condition and quality of colostrum are very important as they determine the newborn calf's immune status."

Early weaning and feeding a grain-based diet increase marbling significantly, Fluharty says.

"What we're really trying to do is get these young calves on a high grain diet much earlier in life," Fluharty says.

Forage-based rations are much more likely to result in rumen end-products of fermentation that convert cells to back fat. By comparison, high-energy grain rations with corn or grain sorghum lead to more propionate, glucose and marbling.