Few branded beef programs today can boast that almost 85% of the cattle that meet their live animal specifications will also meet the program's targets for carcass specifications. The Certified Hereford Beef(r) (CHB) program can make that claim.

Unlike many of the branded beef programs that only chase a premium Choice or ultra lean product, CHB allows the broadest carcass specifications in the industry. They seek carcasses with a:

* Quality Grade of Select or higher,

* Yield Grade 3 or leaner, and

* Carcass weight of 600-950 lbs.

The only live animal criteria are that animals be Hereford or Hereford-English crossbred steers and heifers.

Rob Ames, the American Hereford Association's (AHA) head of product marketing for CHB, says the program was designed with those specifications based on Colorado State University (CSU) research. That research has consistently shown that both Select and Choice Hereford beef have superior eating qualities compared to commodity beef.

In the CSU study, blended Choice and Select steaks from Hereford and Hereford-British crossbred cattle were rated more juicy and flavorful than commodity Choice and Select steaks; and, on average, equivalent to Choice, and superior to Select, in tenderness and overall palatability.

More importantly, Ames says, the Hereford steaks performed more consistently in all quality attributes and were 50% less likely to register a "tough" shear force than were commodity Choice or Select steaks.

Based on those findings, the CHB program was set up to include Select carcasses in order to "take full advantage of the eating qualities of Hereford beef," Ames says. The result has been a lean, attractive product in the meat case with the taste and tenderness consumers want, he adds.

Beef industry retailers and consumers seem to agree. Since the AHA implemented CHB in 1995, the American Tasting Institute has named CHB America's Best Restaurant Beef for three consecutive years.

Those approval ratings are helping the CHB program grow. Last year, 45,000 head went through the program. This year, with increased demand from retailers and increased production - CHB recently added two new licensed packers - the hope is to increase that to 65,000-70,000 head, Ames says.

Steps Toward Growth One of the Hereford breeds biggest steps toward growing the CHB program has been the recent addition of two new packerslicensed to produce CHB products.

This winter, Greater Omaha Packing Co., of Omaha, NE, and Washington Beef, Inc., of Toppenish, WA, became the second and third packers licensed to produce CHB for program retailers, distributors and exporters. Until November of 1999, Red Oak Farms, a Red Oak, IA-based company, was CHB's only licensed packer.

Greater Omaha is now processing 900 to 1,110 head/week for the CHB program. Washington Beef should be in production sometime this summer.

With three packers, CHB joins the Certified Angus Beef (CAB) program as the only two branded beef labels with multiple packers. Ames says that distinction gives the CHB brand and producers added opportunities.

With most CHB retail business presently in the Midwest, the packer expansion exposes the program to a broader mix of potential customers - especially to the West, Ames says.

And, the AHA's alliance with more packers is also aimed at helping create marketing opportunities for producers and feeders, says Jim Williams, director of feedlot operations for the AHA. Williams works with feedlots and producers in maintaining an inventory of CHB cattle to packers.

"With more packers, we're providing more marketing options for producers," Williams says. Currently, the three CHB packers buy cattle on a grid basis or on a weekly market basis, he reports.

Because the prices for CHB cattle are packer dependent, Ames says more packers competing for Hereford cattle means more competition for the cattle. "We hope that is reflected in the price paid back to the producer," Ames says.

Working with multiple packers also creates opportunities for producers to align with additional branded programs that utilize high quality, British breed genetics, Ames says.

"There's an expanded realization that English cattle have an enviable place in the market," Ames says. "As the market becomes less grade oriented, the Hereford breed's goal is to help producers find opportunities to maximize value."

"With two new packers we now have channels to send Hereford genetics to other programs," he says.

For example, in addition to CHB, Washington Beef already markets English cattle through their "Washington Beef" branded label as well as produces beef for a half dozen other branded programs; Red Oak Farms has a Premium Hereford label; and Greater Omaha also produces CAB.

For commercial, black baldy producers, Williams points out that in the cooler those cattle could be eligible for both CAB or CHB.

In short, being eligible for more branded programs can get more dollars back to producers with the kind of cattle they like to run, Williams says.

"CHB is complementing - not trying to compete - with premium Choice programs," Ames says.

He adds that because the CHB program includes Select carcasses, Hereford producers receive premium prices on more of their cattle.

"The program is a huge benefit to producers because rather than try to tack a premium to a small percentage of animals that only grade high Choice, CHB is after added value on a bulk of the cattle," Ames says.

Given the $10-12 price spread that can exist between Choice and Select carcasses, Ames says spreading a small premium across the majority of the cattle helps producers come out money ahead.

Because of CHB's broad carcass criteria, Ames says, "The advantage producers have with CHB is that as demand grows they can meet CHB specifications with 80-95% of their cattle."

A Producer's Perspective On the producer end, Jake and Joan Harder can testify that the CHB program has been a success for the Hereford breed and for returning dollars to producers.

The Harders ranch in the Channeled Scablands of eastern Washington where they run 650 head of Hereford and Hereford/Angus cross cows near Ritzville. They've been involved with the CHB program since its inception when they sent 30 head of calf feds to Colorado to participate in the second wave of the CSU research.

"It sure looked good to us. Our cattle really shined. We learned that Hereford cattle are a whole lot better than those guys sitting on the bench in the sale yards were telling us," Jake says. "We found we can make money witho ut chasing the Choice grade. That gives us some versatility."

The Harders have used a variety of marketing venues, Jake says, each of which takes advantage of their Hereford genetics. "We'll do everything - weaned calves, backgrounded calves, yearlings, to cattle on the hook," Jake says. "Whatever works and whatever is right at the time, we'll do it."

Most recently, he says, their cattle have been sold as grass cattle to Babbitt Ranches in Arizona, destined for the CHB program. He's particularly happy with Washington Beef's entry into the CHB market as a licensed packer.

"CHB has been a good program for us. The only problem is that up until now, it's been 1,400 miles away. Now, with Washington Beef in our backyard, it's more convenient and a lot better on freight," Jake says.

Jake can't put a finger on an exact bottom-line advantage to their participation in CHB, but he feels his cattle are more in demand. Certainly, he adds, replacement heifers are much easier to sell.

Dewayne Lewis, owner of Lewis Feedlot, a 15,000-head, one-time capacity lot at Kearney, NE, also favors the Hereford breed. Lewis has been marketing cattle through the CHB program since it was started five years ago.

Lewis says he feeds mostly Hereford cattle because they're fast gaining, efficient and produce a desirable end-product. He says because of those attributes, he sees demand for the product - and for Hereford cattle - growing.

"Feeders have realized the biggest profit driver in feeding cattle is feed efficiency, and Hereford cattle convert as good or better than any other breed in the feedlot," the AHA's Williams adds.

Like most branded beef programs, CHB has their eye on expansion in the future.

"Ultimately, we'd like to expand with a packer to the Southern Plains and the East Coast," Ames says. But for now, CHB will concentrate on getting their two new packers fully operational.

Ames says they'll also continue to work on growing the retail market for CHB. They will announce a new retailer this month.

"We'll lead in the retail meat case because the CHB brand is appealing and it's not expensive," Ames says. He calls it the economical choice.

"Five years ago the retailers idea of a branded beef product was you had to pay more for it and you had to have top Choice quality. We've shown retailers you can be in a competitive yield situation. We like to position CHB as the market-friendly, retail-friendly brand," Ames says.

For more information on Certified Hereford Beef, contact the American Hereford Association at 816/842-3757.

Producers interested in marketing through the Certified Hereford Beef(r) (CHB) program can work with any feedyard in the U.S.

The CHB program has no formal licensing of feedlots, but does require that feeders place cattle on inventory with the AHA prior to harvesting. Certain CHB packers also require that cattle be feed a 51% corn-based ration as well as a minimum of 50,000 IUs of Vitamin E during the feeding period. (Vitamin E is fed to extend the shelf-life of the product).

If producers want individual carcass information back, packers charge about $5/head. Producers also have the option of retaining ownership.

For a producer that's not interested in retaining ownership or feeding his own cattle, there are still opportunities to market to the CHB program, says Jim Williams, the Hereford Association's director of feedlot operations.

"Feeders are familiar with CHB and are looking for these type of cattle," he says. So producers can market directly to a feedlot or through regular livestock auctions.

Another option is the breed's special Hereford-influenced feeder calf sales, Williams says. This spring is the fifth year for these special-sponsored sales. More than 70 are scheduled.

Williams says from the sales conducted this spring, the AHA has reported an increase in demand for quality Hereford-cross feeder cattle resulting in those kind of cattle bringing market price or above.

"We've had tremendous participation from seedstock producers in providing more marketing options to their customers through these sales. We've seen an increase in demand for these cattle, and a good percentage of them end up in the CHB program," says Williams.

"It's another way for marketing Herefords or black or red baldys and being involved in the CHB program," Williams adds.