Cooperation helps prevent the costly surprise of dark cutters.

Stress kills. It also costs the beef industry millions of dollars each year by way of beef carcasses turned dark by a multitude of stressors that stretch clear back to the ranch.

"No one wants them," says Tim Schiefelbein, manager of value-based procurement for ConAgra Beef Company (CBC). He's explaining the dilemma packers face when otherwise normally valuable carcasses end up labeled as dark cutters.

As the name implies, dark cutters are, well, dark. The colors of the lean range from darker than normal bright cherry red to a lighter shade of black, which consumers don't want to touch.

Dark cutting beef has a higher pH, caused by a depletion of muscle glycogen resulting in too little lactic acid. It's more tender than non-dark cutting beef, but has a higher water-holding capacity and a sticky texture.

There's nothing wrong with its nutrition or food safety, but it has an off-flavor and shorter shelf life than non-dark cutting beef. So, it raises eyebrows among retail consumers, and foodservice customers don't like the taste.

Consequently, Schiefelbein explains, most dark cutting beef goes to processors for cooked products. These processors keep a lid on prices because they know there aren't many buyers. In turn, packers discount the daylights out of dark cutting carcasses.

At press time, CBC was discounting dark cutters $36/cwt. That's more than $200 off a 7-weight carcass. Figure even one-half of 1% dark cutters, then push the numbers across the 5 million head Monfort will harvest this year, and that equates to 17.5/cwt. or about $1.31 for every head, some $6.7 million.

Teaming Up To Reduce Stress That's one reason CBC began what it terms "Just-in-time delivery" for its alliance partners.

"The key to minimizing dark cutters is to minimize stress, and the key to do that is having the least amount of time between pulling cattle out of their pens at the feedlot and slaughter. We time all of that now," explains Schiefelbein.

Specifically, alliance partners receive a harvest slot for the cattle they send so they know exactly when to bring cattle. As a result, the stress of mixing, then standing around a holding pen at the feedlot is reduced, as is the time cattle are in the packer's holding pen prior to slaughter.

"It's one more example of how both parties benefit by working together," says Schiefelbein.

CBC has reduced the incidence of dark cutters half of a percent company-wide over the past four years. This year, they're running 0.71% dark cutters. The last National Beef Quality Audit pegged industry-wide dark cutting incidence at 2.7% for fed beef.

"The only way we were able to reduce it is by working with the feeders," says Schiefelbein.

Even though the industry average seems low, Daryl Tatum, meat science professor at Colorado State University, points out, "When it does occur, it usually does so in epidemic proportions, either at a particular point in time or within a particular group of cattle."

So, the challenge may seem inconsequential until 5% of your cattle cut dark.

"Stress is by far the biggest factor," explains Steven Shackelford, meat scientist at the USDA Meat Animal Research Center in Clay Center, NE. But, he adds, "It is certainly one of the things that is mysterious over time that no one has a clear-cut understanding of."

For instance, Shackelford says rough handling, long hauls, wide swings in temperature, learned behavior in the pasture and pulling cattle off feed for long periods of time all have been linked to dark cutting.

Likewise, Schiefelbein says poor cattle disposition - those edgy individuals who react adversely to anything - can increase the incidence of dark cutters.

"More than breeds, it's where the cattle come from," he explains. "There are particular ranches where the cattle have only seen a horse once in their lives. A higher percentage of those will be dark cutters."

But, often the groups of cattle folks suspect to be dark cutting won't be, and vice versa.

"My conclusion is that it's not usually one thing, but it's usually the combined effect of several stressors," says Tatum. Like a car inching its way toward the edge of the cliff, each glycogen-depleting stressor pushes cattle a little further until bang, they've gone over the edge.

With that in mind, Shackelford says, "The only clear thing you can say is that you should do everything you can to minimize the stress on cattle."