The popular perception is that market cows end up as ground meat. “We sent her to McDonald's” is a common refrain. But the 1999 National Market Cow and Bull Study found that almost 44% of the marketings in 19 cow plants surveyed across the U.S. went into whole-muscle cuts, while 56% were trimmings.

On average, it's estimated that 10-20% of a producer's revenue is from market cow and bull sales. Thus, wringing more value cuts from older cow carcasses should boost prices for beef and dairy market cows and, by extension, producer income.

That's the impetus behind the Cow Muscle Profiling Study released at the 2002 Cattle Industry Summer Conference in Reno in mid July. Funded by the national beef checkoff, the study is the most comprehensive compilation of palatability data on muscles from cows more than 2 years of age.

Earlier meat studies on market cows had focused entirely on the longissimus dorsi (LD) muscle in cows younger than 2 years of age. Because the LD is perceived as having the highest value in the carcass, the thinking was that palatability measurements on the LD would relate to other muscles.

This new research evaluates the palatability traits and characterizes the effects of carcass weight, fat thickness, body type, muscling level and skeletal maturity on yield, dimensions and shear force on 21 muscles in market beef and dairy cows more than 24 months of age. Sensory properties were studied on 10 muscles.

The intent, says University of Nebraska meat scientist Chris Calkins, is to reproduce in the cow market the successes of a similar study conducted on fed beef two years ago. That study, Calkins says, generated an additional $1 million to $2 million in research efforts across the U.S., which helped result in the development of such popular economy cuts as the flat iron steak, as well as a number of cuts for the export market.

“As a consequence of that study, we saw the value of the chuck and round increase more relative to the value of the middle meats,” Calkins says. “It's a matter of developing the baseline knowledge to use muscles better and to make better products.”

Calkins served as a project leader in both studies, along with colleague Dwain Johnson of the University of Florida.

Just as in the fed-beef study, the result of the market cow study will be a manual and compact disc that details the chemical and physical traits of each of the 21 muscles studied. Expected to be completed and disseminated this month, the package is designed as an aid to packers, processors, purveyors, research and developers, retailers, foodservice and others as they supply, process and develop new beef products from market cow beef.

The response from small- to mid-sized processors and fabricators at a preliminary rollout of the research findings in late June was upbeat.

“These results are exciting and a model of what the industry needs to do — partner for mutual benefit,” says Steve Sands, executive vice president of Meyer Foods, a mid-sized processor in Omaha, NE. “With this kind of technology, we can take people away from chicken breasts and make beef more economically appealing.”

He says such technology also holds potential for “smaller retailers — chains of 20-30 stores who can't compete on price with Wal-Mart, or on variety with Kroger and Albertson's. This is how they make it.”

Foodservice operations will initially be the most likely users of new products developed as a result of the cow profiling study, says Mike De La Zerda, beef quality manager for the Texas Beef Council.

Some processors voiced concerns about the potential difficulty and cost of separating certain muscles. A few wondered what the effect of greater whole-muscle use in market cows might do to the trimmings market.

“Will the quality of the trimmings be inferior?” asked one, while another expressed concern about opening the door to foreign imports of trimmings.

“Our ultimate goal is to derive optimal use and value from each muscle,” responds Calkins. “Some of the muscles currently being ground might be better used in other ways. If that is the case, it could reduce the amount of meat going into ground beef. It's just too soon to tell on that.”