USDA's adoption of instrument grading will provide more accurate, consistent and transparent carcass information to all beef-industry constituents — producers, feedlot operators, packers and customers, says Warren Mirtsching, Swift's senior vice president of food safety and quality assurance. Along the way, producers hope such benefits will mean more dollars from the most-valuable carcasses.

Studies conducted prior to USDA's 2000 approval of Visual Image Analysis (VIA) systems to augment yield grading suggested the difference in carcass value between tenths of a Yield Grade (YG) was about $30. That was when fed cattle were averaging $60/cwt., not the $80s of recent years.

“Instrument grading will allow buyers to pay more accurately, based on quality and yield attributes,” says Keith Belk, Colorado State University meat scientist. “Carcasses being rewarded or penalized more based on actual value rather than on average will tend to spread the price range.”

That's because VIA allows for more objective assignment of official USDA ribeye size (for YG), final USDA YG and intramuscular marbling scores in the case of Quality Grade (QG).

“With this technology, there will be much greater accuracy and consistency, fewer re-grades and more accurate information to use in managing carcass fabrication,” Belk says.

A Catch-22

Until USDA approved VIA to augment QG last fall, Belk says the systems lacked widespread adoption and weren't practical in price discovery, sustaining a Catch-22 for implementation.

However, “USDA validation and endorsement will drive trust and acceptance of the systems, and greater system availability will aid adoption,” Mirtsching says.

Now it's a matter of packers figuring out if the benefits outrun the costs of outfitting plants to do both. Some major packers have been experimenting with such systems for the past several years.

“It won't happen quickly,” Belk says. Even if packers decide the investment is worthwhile, it will take time to renovate plants, and for packers and producers to determine what the technology for pricing might mean to overall economics.

“Producers need to figure out how their cattle will perform when these systems are implemented for the purpose of determining cattle value,” he says. Belk suggests producers work with their packers to see if their cattle can be evaluated with the technology prior to full implementation and compare it to the traditional method of determining price.

Keep in mind though, that instrument-augmented grading doesn't replace USDA graders.

Where YG is concerned, VIA systems are approved to measure ribeye area — one of four components and the toughest to measure at chain speeds.

USDA also approved instruments to officially assign the final YG to carcasses.

“Use of computer-assisted technology can only improve the accuracy and consistency of official grade placement which is required in such a short period of time,” says Belk. He explains USDA graders have only a few seconds to evaluate all of the carcass factors used to compute a final YG, make the necessary computations and then assign the final YG to each carcass.

Graders must also assign a QG during those same few seconds. VIA is approved to assign marbling scores, while graders remain solely responsible for determining physiological maturity and lean color, the other QG components.

Environmental equalizer

As Mirtsching explains, “Today, USDA's grading staff performs exceptionally well at the individual plant level. However, factors such as differences in lighting between plants can contribute to slight grading differences between facilities for otherwise similar cattle and plant operational processes.”

In research Belk conducted prior to VIA's approval, YG assigned by graders at chain speed were accurate about 55 percent of the time, compared to YG assigned by expert graders who could take as much time as they wanted at a stationery rail. Give those same on-line graders an instrument-derived ribeye measurement or YG and the accuracy level of grade placement climbed to 70-80% with 99% repeatability. “At that level it was difficult to determine whether the expert graders or the on-line VIA system was wrong,” says Belk.

In trials to determine marbling score, VIA instruments have been 90-93% accurate at a repeatability level of 99%.

That kind of increased accuracy can generate returns for the industry even if the technology isn't used in price discovery, Belk says.

“By using this technology to better manage fabrication and match production to inventory demands, the packer can capture an additional $50/carcass,” Belk says. “That ultimately benefits the entire industry.”

Likewise, Mirtsching says, “Producers and feedlot operators are likely to benefit from specific information at the carcass level — vs. the lot level — to aid in genetic and feeding management. This data will allow the industry to more effectively supply consumer demand, thereby driving consumption.”

Of course, the very thing VIA enables could end up limiting its use. That is, cattle getting penalized that should have been penalized more under our current system, Belk says.