Turns out you can make silk out of a sow's ear, at least when there's some silk in there to start with.

In this case, the chuck and round — historically the weightiest anchors to increased carcass revenue — are becoming retail stars, boosting already steamy consumer beef demand.

“If we figure increased demand growth has been worth $15/cwt. on a fed steer, just the increased demand in chuck products has been worth $6-$7/cwt. of that increase,” says Mike Miller, Cattle-Fax director of business development. In other words, increased chuck value alone has added $50-$70 to the total price of a fed steer.

That's a far cry from just a few years ago when the value of chucks and rounds was falling faster than a box of rocks. For perspective, according to Bucky Gwartney of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA) Research and Knowledge Management division, in 1993, compared to 1988, the value of the loin had increased 3% and the value of the rib was up 4%. During the same period of time, though, chuck value had declined 24%, round value had fallen 25% and the value of trimmings from these primals had plummeted 28%.

Salt in the wound came with the knowledge that the chuck and round account for 69% of total carcass weight on average. That was the sow's ear.

Now, for the silk. Traditionally, the chuck and round were used for roasts or just ground up. That's because cuts from these primals were always perceived as the toughest eating parts of the carcass in terms of tenderness. A muscle-profiling project funded by the beef checkoff program changed that perception.

In an effort to gain more understanding about these two low-value primals, at the behest of the Cattlemen's Beef Promotion and Research Board (Beef Board) and state beef councils, meat scientists examined all of the muscles in the chuck and round, more than 5,500 in all. What they found is that some of the muscles from subprimals, such as the shoulder clod, are as tender and tasty as the most coveted cut from the loin or rib.

Beef Value Cuts

With this newfound knowledge, the Beef Board launched the Beef Value Cuts (BVC) program. It included demonstrating to processors and retailers how to fabricate carcasses to take advantage of cuts like the flat iron steak, which comes from the chuck shoulder. Muscle-profiling revealed the flat iron is second in tenderness only to the tenderloin, and consumers have been quick to respond.

According to Miller, since 1998 when the flat iron steak first came to market, the value of the chuck has increased 60% (Table 1). He emphasizes, “This effort in changing the value and makeup of the chuck and how we merchandise it has been huge.”

Ron Boatwright, president and CEO of Freedman Meats, Inc., agrees. He says all meat operations he has insight into have increased sales of flat iron steaks 25-100% this year compared to last year. “We're now only beginning to scratch the surface of potential,” Boatwright says.

Part of the potential upside has to do with the fact that price discovery, even for the most demanded BVC products, is still in its infancy. That means prices for these cuts will likely increase. Moreover, retailers are just now starting to take a hard look at new BVC products beyond the flat iron.

As an example, the petite tender (also from the chuck shoulder) is beginning to gain widespread retail interest as packers fabricate it out of the carcass and make more supply available. Insiders expect it to become the next flat iron in terms of popularity.

Overall, Betty Hogan, NCBA director of new product marketing, says more than 70 packers are fabricating BVCs. Meanwhile, more than 1,300 restaurants are featuring them, and the list of retailers offering them continues to grow.

But, that's a drop in the bucket compared to the marketplace, which includes 650,000 restaurants and 30,000 grocery stores. NCBA has conducted the BVC program, including muscle-profiling and product development, as a contractor for the Beef Board and state beef councils.

Perhaps most satisfying about this reversal in fortune is the fact that it resulted not from chance but by a calculated and collective effort of the beef industry. As a project funded by the national beef checkoff, every beef producer contributing to the checkoff can claim a role in BVC's success.

“I think this group (Beef Board and BVC participants) did three remarkable things,” Boatwright says. “They've given the end cuts credibility, especially the chuck. They've created pull-through demand, and they've created synergy between all segments of the industry.”

Table 1.Price changes in beef value cuts: 1998-2003

Primal 1998 Price (wholesale $/lb.) 2003 Price (wholesale $/lb.) Percentage Change
Rib $1.59 $2.37 +49%
Chuck $0.68 $1.08 +60%
Round $0.88 $1.16 +32%
Loin $1.58 $2.15 +36%
Source: Cattle-Fax