Three decades of carcass-grading research and data collection will soon begin to pay dividends for the beef industry: instrument grading has finally arrived.

“In the late spring or early summer, we'll be capable of having an operating system up and working,” says Martin O'Connor, chief of the Standards, Analysis, and Technology Branch of the Livestock and Seed Program, USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service. “It was a long time coming. But we wanted to make sure that, as a government agency, we could stand behind (the system).”

With all research conducted and standards in place, the industry awaits only USDA approval of plant operational plans to flip the switch on using the new technology.

Getting the ball rolling

Over the past 10 years, beef producers have devoted more than $2.5 million in checkoff funds toward instrument-grading research. Meanwhile, packing companies have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to install equipment in each of their plants and will spend even more to staff the operation of this equipment.

The investments are definitely worthwhile, says Mike Engler, president and CEO of Cactus Feeders in Amarillo, TX. “It's a huge step forward,” he says. “This gives every carcass a fair shot on the grading chain.”

The key advantages to instrument grading are consistency and uniformity.

“That's what it's all about,” says J.O. “Bo” Reagan, National Cattlemen's Beef Association senior vice president of research, education and innovation. “This will bring about uniformity across all plants, and a greater reflection of cattle value.”

Glen Dolezal, director of new technology applications for Cargill, Inc., agrees. “Now it's not just an opinion; it's something you've calibrated the instrument for,” he says. “It can only help the industry, because of the consistency it's bringing to the picture.”

Producers who sell cattle on the grid will benefit the most. Because of the human element in carcass grading, more than 60% of the product in one week may grade Choice, while a different set of graders the following week may find that only 45% merit that grade.

“Some days it's easier to get a good result; other days you'll get poor grading. Results vary from shift to shift,” Engler says. “One plant's grading may be too high, another's might be unfairly too low. We needed to create a more objective and level playing field.”

There are other benefits. For instance, there will be fewer carcasses pulled for re-grade consideration at the packing plant. Dolezal believes it isn't unusual today for 200-500 carcasses to be pulled per shift for those purposes, creating additional costs for space and personnel. Engler says the cost of beef to consumers may eventually go down slightly because of efficiencies created with instrument grading.

Yield grading is more precise and effective, too. Carcasses can now be graded with a highly accurate assessment to the nearest tenth of a grade, rather than the nearest whole number grade.

Stumbling blocks

Before a new system could be implemented, USDA had to be assured it would be accurate, and the industry had to be assured it would be seamless with current grading standards.

“One challenge was collecting sufficient data to be scientifically sound for USDA,” Dolezal says.

O'Connor adds that the data collection was extensive. Information on about 1.5 million head of cattle was obtained over a two-year period and pilot projects were conducted in Kansas, Nebraska and Texas. These helped prove the work could be replicated in commercial settings.

“It took us most of the time to make sure we had the right data set,” O'Connor says.

After research had established the patterns for marbling on carcasses, it was up to USDA to determine where the grade lines should be drawn. And that caused headaches for USDA and the beef industry.

“One of the biggest concerns industry had is that we want instrument grading to be seamless,” Reagan says. “There should be no significant changes in the percentages of Select, Choice and Prime cattle in the system.”

According to Reagan, precision in setting the grading line was critical. For example, by simply moving the grading line one degree, a change of 6% could be created in Choice cattle in a particular plant.

The initial prediction model established by USDA “did not align with the marbling calls applied by graders online in the field,” Dolezal says. “If we had adopted that system, it would have cost the industry millions of dollars.

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Next Page: Graders vital to the process

Previous Page: Getting the ball rolling

After additional statistical modeling, Reagan says USDA established a line acceptable to the industry. “USDA is now satisfied from a scientific standpoint that the instruments can accurately determine the grades,” he says.

“Standards needed to be applied in a uniform manner nationwide,” Dolezal says. “The new USDA standards address industry concerns about variation in the original model.”

Graders vital to the process

Though the machines will be operated by plant personnel, USDA will retain total oversight and control of the process, O'Connor says. Graders will be needed, for instance, to assure that images are being captured appropriately and under optimum conditions.

And the new technology can't capture everything. Maturity of the cattle and the firmness of the meat, for instance, will be judged by graders, and dark cutters can only be identified by humans. Graders can also reject instrument findings if it appears the image wasn't captured or analyzed within acceptable parameters.

O'Connor says USDA graders must go through two years of training, which continues to be valuable. “We have the highest confidence in this workforce,” he says. “But now the graders will have a competency that people in the past wouldn't have had access to.”

Although questions about instrument grading were raised by graders early on, “as they became more familiar with the video image analysis (VIA) system and saw the role they would play in oversight, they recognized the value of the technology,” O'Connor says.

“There's value (in instrument grading) in both directions — to producers and to consumers,” Dolezal says. “And it's very valuable in helping make decisions at the chain speeds we operate today.”

Walt Barnhart is a freelance writer and communications consultant based in Littleton, CO.

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