Beef producers are doing a better job of getting cull animals to market than they were five years ago, according to results from the 1999 National Market Cow And Bull Audit conducted by Colorado State University (CSU).

Information for the audit, funded by beef checkoff dollars, was collected from 21 plants across the U.S. and from interviews with 21 packers. Results for the 1999 audit reveal some real success stories, says CSU animal scientist Gary Smith.

He says the best news for 1999 was that only 1 in 90 cattle or carcasses was condemned. In 1994, when the National Non-Fed Beef Quality Audit was conducted, it was 1 in 38.5 cattle or carcasses.

Those numbers indicate producers are managing and marketing cull animals earlier. That, Smith says, returns more profit to the producer and results in a higher quality end-product.

With an average of 16% of total income for beef cow/calf producers coming from salvage animals, Smith points out that market cows and bulls can offer a significant value to a cow/calf operation.

Not All Good News But, the audit was not all good news. Although producers are doing a better job in some areas, there are still some quality concerns, says Smith.

The 1999 Audit revealed that quality defects cost the industry $68.82/head compared to $69.90/head lost in 1994.

Carcass bruises and arthritic joints top the packing industry's list of concerns in regard to cow and bull carcass quality. These defects cause substantial economic loss because they must be trimmed from carcasses.

Antibiotic residues and birdshot in carcasses are also growing concerns because of potential food safety risks.

Thus, Smith says, producers still have opportunities to improve quality and maximize the value of market cows and bulls. The audit found that producers could recapture much of the value lost from market cows and bulls through improved management, monitoring and marketing (See Table 1).

Areas Of Improvement According to the results from the 1999 audit, key areas for producers to focus on to improve end-product quality include:

U culling cattle earlier,

U handling cattle properly,

U implementing herd-health programs,

U branding appropriately,

U managing horns,

U improving transportation,

U eliminating bruises and

U managing the condition and leanness of cows and bulls.

Smith says areas that need attention from producers include brands, insect damage and bruising.

Bruises are still a problem, Smith says, especially among cows. "Cows had five times as many incidences of bruises compared to bulls. We need to prevent that, especially over the top of the back - in the region of the rib and loin," says Smith.

Producers must also consider placement of brands. "Brands need to be up in the corner of the animal's side-view profile. Think of how you put a stamp on an envelope," Smith says.

Another point: if it's not necessary, don't brand. Some packers are paying premiums for hides that are not branded, he adds.

Lastly, Smith suggests producers find out what their packer wants. "If there's one theme from coolers, it's a need to balance the fat and muscle on market cows and bulls," he says.

Feeding animals for a brief period prior to marketing can increase weight, body condition score and carcass grade characteristics, all of which can add value. Feeding cull animals grain diets for 60 days can also whiten outside fat, making the end product more valuable and appealing to upscale markets, Smith says.

Surprisingly, beef from market cows and bulls isn't just used for ground beef. The 1999 audit revealed that 44% of beef from market cows and bulls is sold as primals, and 100% visual lean subprimals.

"Your product is not just ground beef. Consider that when you take animals to market," Smith says.

For more information about the 1999 Market Cow and Bull Quality Audit, or to obtain a "Mr. Food" video, which profiles why proper handling of market cows and bulls is important, contact NCBA's Gary Cowman at 303/694-0305.