Grids are touted as a way to get premiums for producing the right kind. But there's a downside.

"Don't consider merit-based marketing alternatives unless you keep the number of non-conforming carcasses to a minimum," says Glen Dolezal, Oklahoma State University meats scientist. "Outliers can trim that margin to zero."

A mere 1% incidence of non-conforming carcasses (U.S. Standard, Yield Grade [YG] 4 and 5, dark cutters, blood-splashed lean, yellow fat, and extreme weights) can lower the price on all cattle in a pen by nearly $1/cwt., Dolezal notes. One of the biggest culprits is B-maturity - fed steers that look like Choice YG 3 on the hoof yet grade B maturity on the rail.

Looks Can Be Deceiving That's what happened on a 1,284-lb. black steer slaughtered during a recent Genetic Management Seminar sponsored by the Arkansas Cattlemen's Association (ACA).

The steer was one of four head selected from a pen of put-together cattle of unknown background on feed.

"He was a good-looking, average feedlot market steer," explains Jason Apple, University of Arkansas meats scientist. When slaughtered the steer dressed 64.3%, had an adjusted backfat of 0.66 in., ribeye area of 14.6 square in., and a YG of 2.9, considered par on most grids. The carcass had enough marbling (small 80/90) to grade Low Choice. Based on the USDA quotes the week of July 19, he'd bring $98.85/cwt. in the carcass or $63.56 live.

But there was the bad news. The carcass graded U.S. Standard on the rail because it had B-20 Maturity, even though he didn't look like it on the hoof. Apple could tell when he scratched the button cartilage on the vertebral column starting at the 12/13th rib.

"As an animal matures, ossification occurs from the tail region, progressively to the loin and rib of the hanging carcass," Apple explains. An A-maturity carcass will have less than 10% ossification and an old cow should be 100%, he says. "The cartilage looks like solid bone."

If the steer had sold for cash live, he might have slipped through as Low Choice, or "no roll" if the buyer thought he'd be B-20, because packers don't sell Standard carcasses.

Here's the shocker. If bought off the grid in the carcass, the steer would automatically grade Standard and be discounted $21/cwt. for a carcass price of $77.85/cwt. and a live value of $50.05/cwt. That's $182.49 less just because he wasn't A-maturity.

The black steer had a skeletal maturity of B (60/70) and a lean maturity of A-80, resulting in an overall carcass maturity of B-20.

"It's really the overall carcass maturity that is used to compute the final quality grade," explains Apple. "If the skeletal maturity had been B-20 with a lean maturity of A-80, the overall (final) maturity would have been B-00, which is considered the same as A-100 and eligible for U.S. Choice."

This scenario is the result of the grading change made in 1997 that automatically dumps a B-maturity animal grading low Choice (Small 80/90) into U.S. Standard. B-maturity carcasses are only eligible for Prime, Choice and Standard grades.

The government changed the system hoping to reduce inconsistency of B- maturity cattle. "Such a steer could be tender, but also tough," says Apple. "Before the grading change, some feeders would breed young heifers and wean their calves off early, then drylot those heifers and sell them for slaughter. Prior to the grade change, these B-maturity heiferettes could grade Low Choice if they were small marbling.

The above experience with the steer shows the tremendous effect of non-conformers to the beef industry. So how do you minimize the number of outliers?

* Know the cattle you produce. "When you have cattle out of the normal slaughter range of 16 to 20 months, particularly with late summer pastured cattle that have been around for a while, you're taking a chance on B-maturity," Apple warns. "I believe we're going to see a lot of cattle selling that provide lists of vaccinations, names of previous owners, all with the goal to reducing problems in the areas we can control."

Tips To Minimize Risk * Consider all the traits that throw a carcass into the non-conforming category. "Dark cutters are hard to identify, but yellow fat is easy to see. If the cattle are getting around two years of age and you don't know the exact age, you're taking chances," Apple says.

* Learn about grid pricing and how to determine carcass and live value from a grid. "We need to understand the factors and how these grades are formulated so we can better understand value of our cattle," Apple says.

* Produce more cattle within a narrower range of genetic differences. Apple says medium-frame, heavy-muscled cattle grading at least 50% Choice, 70% or greater YG 1 and 2 with a hot weight dressing percent of 63.75% or greater must be emphasized.

"Do your best to produce the right calf for a niche market like Certified Angus Beef or Laura's Lean or the middle-of-the-road, mass-produced beef. In most cases, they won't cost one cent more to produce but will reward you at sale time with a higher price," he says.

* Participate in steer feedouts. Their data is revealing.