A cattle feeder’s main goal is feedyard profitability. Why else devote the blood, sweat and tears?

More gain with better feed efficiency is the objective, along with a better-than-breakeven price in the end. But feeders know they must use production methods that promote strong gains and produce high-quality beef that meets the consumer taste test. Tender, tasty beef is imperative to ensure long-term demand.

When consumers bite into a ribeye, sirloin, or one of the newer more lean cuts like the flat iron – a tough steak won’t do. Feed additives like a beta-agonist growth enhancer can improve feed efficiency and weight gain, but they must not reduce tenderness.

It’s all about meat quality

Optaflexx® (ractopamine hydrochloride) is a beta-1 agonist that has little, if any, effect on beef quality. But when used according to label, it provides increased rate of gain and improved feed efficiency during the last 28-42 days on feed, helping enable energy from feed to enhance muscle development and total red meat yield.

The beta-1 agonist has a zero-day withdrawal period. And on the tenderness side – it has minimal effect on marbling and eating quality. However, a beta-2 agonist has a three-day withdrawal period and has been shown to negatively impact marbling and tenderness.

Accurately measuring the tenderness of beef is essential. It is accomplished in several ways. A technique known as Warner-Bratzler (WB) shear force, which uses a machine with special knives to cut through meat, is one of the most popular, accurate and objective instrumental measurements of meat tenderness.
“Shear force offers a reliable and routine method of evaluating beef tenderness that correlates well with results of taste panels’ assessments of tenderness,” says Bill Platter, director of Elanco Knowledge Solutions, Beef Informatics. “It can show us the maximum level of shear force a majority of consumers would consider acceptable for beef tenderness.”

Measured in kilograms, most consumers can detect a difference in tenderness of two samples that vary by 0.5 kg of WB shear force. Independent tests show that the beta-1 agonist minutely impacts shear force at 0.2 kg or less, while the beta-2 agonist can see shear force of up to 1.7 kg.

Independent evaluations of beef from cattle that receive various types of growth promotants have been made by unique human sensory panels at Iowa State University (ISU). Ken Prusa, food scientist at the ISU Sensory Center in the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition, leads the program.

“Sensory is a science that evolved from the military looking for high-quality rations for troops,” Prusa says. “We can use sensory panels to measure aroma, tenderness, juiciness and other taste factors in beef, pork or poultry.”

Trained panels have calibrated skills to look for the highest and lowest extremes of a product.

“If, for example, we’re measuring steak tenderness, we will use un-aged, low-marbled steaks to represent the ‘tough side’ of the scale,” Prusa says. “We choose an aged Choice or Prime steak as an example of meat that is extremely tender. We use those samples during training to calibrate the high and low side.”

In the early 2000s, evaluations were made to measure the quality of beef from animals on the beta-1 agonist program (see “Stimulating Agents,” BEEF, August 2007). Prusa and his associates used trained sensory panels and Warner-Bratzler shear force values. The beta-1 agonist was fed to cattle at the recommended dosage. The ISU sensory panel concluded there were no differences that would be detected by consumers in meat palatability as defined by tenderness, juiciness and flavor; there were no differences in meat quality compared to beef from “control” animals.

Insight into genetics

Information provided by sensory panels and shear force measurement can help guide cattle producers and feeders focused on outstanding genetics and the products that complement them. The Certified Angus Beef® (CAB®) brand is a long-time leader in “gate-to-plate” beef production. Mark McCully, CAB assistant vice president of supply, explains how this merger of beef production and marketing remains key in producer/feeder profitability.

“I believe the CAB brand has been successful by always keeping the consumer squarely as the target,” McCully says. “Delivering a consistently great eating experience must be the focus of profitable beef production.”

For years, cattle feeders sought packer premiums for high-quality beef. When demand for more consistent beef grew among consumers and they were willing to pay for it, packers were able to pay those premiums. Alliances and supply chains were developed around value-based grids, rewarding producers and feeders who could deliver such a product.

For example, McCully says the premium for CAB has averaged $3.50/cwt. the past five years, or about $30/head over the Choice price for an 850-lb. carcass. McCully says CAB supports programs that can increase feed efficiency without impacting beef quality.

“Beta agonists are an incredible technology to improve efficiency and reduce cost of gain,” McCully says. “The key becomes balancing the performance and red meat yield improvement with the potential reduction in marbling and tenderness if a product is used incorrectly.”

Higher costs, more efficiency

McCully says the benefits of all growth-promoting technologies are typically amplified as feed costs increase.

“The key to profitability is looking at these improvements in efficiency alongside any carcass quality reductions,” he says. “Cutting costs is always crucial in the profit equation but not without evaluating potential losses in short- and long-term income.

“While some short-term profits might be garnered through sacrificing beef quality, in the end, those profits are not sustainable when the consumer is disappointed and beef demand becomes compromised,” McCully says.

The high-quality beef target is important to beef processors who realize the demand it represents. Processors rely on various tools to measure carcass quality and, if needed, the value of individual animals to a feedyard or producer. Electronic instrument grading is now routinely used in many processing plants.

Glen Dolezal, Cargill Beef assistant vice president of communication & technology development, says instrument grading technology helps identify carcass quality more accurately and efficiently. Cargill has been using instrument grading for 20 years and relies on it to certify grades for brands such as Sterling Silver, Angus Pride and CAB.

The beef checkoff, Cargill and other groups have spent millions of dollars on research with USDA to conduct studies to validate the use of the technology.

Cargill discontinued USDA yield grading in early 2009 and now uses camera-generated information to provide yield grade data to producers for payment purposes. Instrument grading has helped Cargill and other processors and feeders identify growth-enhancement products, such as beta agonists, to improve beef production and quality.

At the 2011 International Livestock Congress in Denver earlier this year, Dolezal indicated that Cargill prefers growth technologies that don’t have a mandatory withdrawal immediately prior to harvest. He says Cargill is focused on branded beef quality to preserve the taste and tenderness of beef for long-term demand. Maximizing performance and efficiency pre-harvest at the expense of beef taste and tenderness is not in the best interest of the industry.

“The statistical analysis has also allowed us to better identify trends related to our efforts to improve both total yield and quality of the yield. Using instrument grading has improved the accuracy of all grades because we are now using science vs. subjective grading techniques,” says Todd Allen, Cargill Beef general manager of feedlot operations.

“It allows us to implement timely corrective actions to benefit our customers, consumers and our business.”

Eating quality will always be key

Allen says instrument grading helps the company “develop better management practices for cattle that will produce better meat products. We believe it is a best practice that should be adopted industry-wide.”
Platter says that as long as consumers remain concerned about their use of food dollars, the quality of more economical cuts of meat will be among their concerns.

“Arguably these traits may be even more important in these economic conditions,” he says. “Consumers may shift demand toward lower value cuts, but tenderness, juiciness and flavor are still important for consumers.

“As prices rise, so do consumer expectations. Beef must provide a positive eating experience to maintain its position as a premium priced protein; otherwise, we do risk losing market share to pork or poultry.”
He concludes that beef producers, feeders and processors must continue their quest to balance profitability with consumer acceptance of beef products. “As we look to the future, the beef industry must strike a balance between food availability, affordability and eating quality, as beef consumers will demand we do so,” he says.