Should you pick a small feedyard over a large one to obtain the best quality-grading carcass? If you consider summarized data compiled by Certified Angus Beef®, LLC (CAB), the answer is probably “yes.”

But be patient before placing your calves in one or the other. Your breed, environment, preconditioning program, distance from the yard, expected feed efficiency and other factors should be considered, says Ted McCollum, Texas A&M University beef cattle specialist.

“You can't be sure if the difference in quality grade (QG) is because the cattle are fed in a large or small yard, or where the yards are located,” says McCollum, commenting on the CAB report. “Smaller yards in northern states may have access to better-grading cattle types.”

CAB says more than 50% of cattle on feed are fed in yards of more than 32,000-head capacity. Meanwhile, CAB data shows yards larger than 20,000 head have a 41% lower CAB brand acceptance rate than the average of their counterparts. Small yards also have 17-20% more cattle grading Choice or higher.

“That's more than a coincidence,” says Larry Corah, CAB vice president. “Larger feedlots face a number of challenges that contribute to this QG decrease.”

Adds Mark McCully, CAB supply director, “We recognize some difference could be due to feedlot location, as most of the larger yards have access to southern-type cattle. But cattle that find their way into our dataset tend to be of similar quality.”

In observing CAB's recent numbers (1999-2006) of cattle utilizing its CAB Feedyard Licensing Program and detailed carcass data:

  • Feedyards less than 10,000-head capacity fed 41,078 CAB-designated cattle. Of those, 77% graded Choice and above, and 27% were CAB accepted.

  • More individual attention

    Feedyards of 10,000-20,000 head fed 21,030 cattle and registered 74% Choice or above with a 27.8% CAB acceptance rate.

  • In feedyards of more than 20,000-head capacity, 77,518 cattle graded 57.8% Choice and 15.8% were CAB accepted.

More Individual Attention

Frank Winters is manager of Flint Rock Feeders in Gruver, TX, a 15,000-head capacity yard and one of 67 CAB-licensed yards nationwide. He says the capability for more individual attention may be the smaller yards' secret.

“A smaller operation may be able to pay closer attention to individual pens than a much larger operation. We can go to the individual animal, not just the individual customer,” he says.

Flint Rock receives cattle from across Texas, west to Arizona, and east all the way to Virginia. Winters admits his yard receives a lot of CAB-type cattle.

“My average for cattle that meet CAB certification was 16.1% for 2006,” he says, noting that figure was slightly above the national average and much higher than the 9.9% average for Texas.

Natural cattle fed for Laura's Lean Beef also perform well, as do cattle fed for several other grids. He credits his yard's small size, which typically boasts a ratio of one worker/1,000 head on feed.

McCollum says Flint Rock is an example of a small yard that may be more specialized than larger yards in the southern High Plains that wind up feeding huge numbers of cattle from the Deep South and South Texas.

“High Plains yards of less than 20,000-head capacity are relatively low compared to northern states,” McCollum says. “Northern yards likely receive more local cattle, or cattle from states like Wyoming or North or South Dakota, which often grade better than southern cattle. You can't just say the smaller yards have better QG numbers because they're small.”

His assumptions of yard location and cattle types jibe with the thoughts of CAB and its measurement of yard size vs. percent Choice and CAB acceptance.

“The feedyards with less than 20,000-head capacity are located in Iowa and Nebraska and tend to focus on higher-quality northern cattle,” says CAB's McCully. “The larger yards are often located in Kansas and Texas and typically aim to upgrade southern cattle.”

The Steam Flake Factor

Corah says the fact steam-flaked grain can have a negative impact on marbling could be a factor in larger yards' lower QG numbers.

“Most larger feedlots use steam-flaked grain,” says Corah, pointing to a 1999 Oklahoma State University (OSU) research review. That study showed steam flaking corn, rather than dry rolling, can drop a carcass from a Small marbling score of 524 points, to a Slight marbling score of 482 on a 1,000-point scale.

“Feeding steam-flaked corn can lead to external fat deposition instead of marbling,” Corah says. “This practice is pretty common in yards greater than 20,000 head. In yards under 5,000 head, it's almost unheard of.”

Many will argue that while marbling score may be lower, overall performance of cattle on a steam-flaked ration is better. In a CAB-cited study, cattle on a steam-flaked grain ration had an average daily gain of 3.48 lbs./day, compared to 3.12 for dry rolled, and 3.15 for whole grain.

In addition, conversion was 5.43 lbs. of feed/lb. of gain for steam-flaked, compared to a 6.3:1 ratio for dry-rolled and whole corn. The ribeye area of animals on the steam-flaked ration was 13.1 sq. in., compared to 12.6 for cattle on a dry-rolled ration, and 12.3 for the whole-grain ration.

Spencer Swingle, nutritionist for Cactus Feeders in Amarillo, the nation's largest cattle feeding company, says steam-flaked grain is higher in energy than dry-rolled.

“There's a 12-15% improvement in energy from steam-flaked corn, and improvement in the feeding value is important,” he says. “If there's a QG impact from steam-flaking, it's a very small one. Under controlled circumstances, the odds of it being a major factor are very small.”

McCully says the impact of steam flaking on marbling isn't fully understood, and the yield grade (YG) change may be due to less ruminal escape of dietary starch.

“With increased daily gains achieved through steam flaking, days on feed are reduced,” he says. “That could also reduce marbling."

Then there's health status

Of course, cattle with fewer health problems normally perform better. And smaller yards may face fewer health problems than larger yards.

“The closeout data I've seen indicates smaller feedlots tend to have less death loss,” says Dan Loy, Iowa State University (ISU) animal science professor. “That may indicate fewer health problems. The data suggests cattle that get sick are less likely to grade than healthy cattle.”

ISU studies show cattle treated twice or more for bovine respiratory disease had a 33% reduction in grading premium Choice. Animal scientists say an increase in health problems at larger yards could be caused by the lower labor-to-cattle ratio, feeding younger cattle and added stress.

McCollum notes health is often related to demographics. “Again, a lot of smaller feedlots buy more calves locally,” he says. “With the larger feedlots, a lot of those cattle are being transported for longer distances. They're subjected to a different level of stress.”

Mark Sebranek, general manager of the 34,000-head Irsik & Doll Feedyard, Garden City, KS, says his yard takes steps to prevent health problems from hurting QG and efficiencies.

“We work with our customers and document the vaccination programs being performed at home,” Sebranek says. “We try to complement the customer's vaccines with those used at our feedyard.”

The feedyard also works to improve animal health with quiet handling.

“If you can keep the adrenalin out of the cattle, by keeping them relaxed the whole time, those cattle are going to go to the bunk and eat more feed,” Sebranek says. “They'll also stay healthier.”

In a typical slaughter report, 40-45% of cattle grade USDA Choice in the Southern Plains. The Midwest and Northern Plains are often 15% higher.

“That may reflect differences in time on feed and feeding strategies,” McCollum says. “You can also look at the YGs on those cattle. You'll see a much higher percentage of YG3 and 4s in the North. The cattle are fed to a fatter endpoint than what we normally do in the South.”

A good YG-sorting program can increase performance in all regions. Irsik & Doll grid markets 80-85% of its cattle. From January 2006 to October 2006, it posted a 26% CAB acceptance rate, more than 10% above the average of all CAB-licensed yards.

“Sorting the tops off the cattle — not sending the entire pen at one time — really helps, especially with the small customers,” says Sebranek. He notes a variation of 300-500 lbs. isn't uncommon on calves coming into the same pen at the feedyard.

The degree of sorting for a set of cattle likely depends on their overall quality. Loy says sorting isn't often linked to high-volume feeding.

“That's not something the large feedlots have the labor to do, but its fairly common in the Cornbelt,” he says. “By sorting and marketing in more than one group, you're more likely to market the animal closer to it's optimal time, from both a QG and a YG standpoint.”

Irsik & Doll recruits cattle that will grade higher. “In part, the high CAB acceptance rate is because of the cattle received,” says Sebranek, who returns carcass data to customers enrolled in CAB and other programs. “They use the data to find their replacements and buy bulls,” he says.

Genetics along with geographic herd trends are both significant in a feeding program, McCollum stresses. “The genetics are quite different in Texas than what would be accessed in Iowa or Nebraska,” he says.

Whether it's a farmer-feeder in Iowa or a large yard operated by Cactus, good processing crews are essential. Some would argue a large yard has an advantage because it likely has a dedicated processing crew, while a small yard's doctoring crew might also deliver feed.

Sebranek says much credit goes to his processing crews and others who take pride in their work. “They respond as if they owned the cattle themselves,” he says.

“If you get your crew in tune with that pride, there should be no differences between a large yard and a small one.”

Larry Stalcup is a freelance writer based in Amarillo, TX.