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Making the grade — new yield standards will drive change

New yield grades based on what retailers want will affect both genetics and management

Canada’s new beef yield grade standards will make it easier for beef producers to know which of their cattle are hitting top marks — and which ones literally aren’t making the grade.

“In the old system, we basically had a high, medium, and low classification, and for many years, we had more than half of our cattle in the high category,” said Mark Klassen, director of technical services for the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association.

“If a teacher came to you and said that your child was in the top 50 per cent of his class, what does that really mean?

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“We wanted to have a little bit more ability to tell which were the top performers in the cattle population.”

The new yield grade standards, launched Jan. 15, now have five yield classes instead of three, and mirror the American yield grading system. (Yield grades are a prediction of retail cut yield and are different than quality grades, such as Canada Prime or AAA.)

“Now the five categories might correspond to A, B, C, D, and F grades,” said Klassen. “It’s a more meaningful way of reporting back to producers.”

The new classes also measure different things. The three former classes measured lean meat yield of the carcass — essentially, the percentage of the carcass that was red meat compared to bone and fat.

But that isn’t exactly what customers buy at a retailer, said Reynold Bergen, science director at the Beef Cattle Research Council.

“When you buy a steak or a roast at the store, there’s always some external fat on there,” said Bergen.

“What the new yield classes do is predict the amount of retail yield. It’s still boneless, and it’s still most of the fat gone, but it’s a closer estimation of what the retail store actually sells to consumers.”

This method for classifying yield grades has been used in the U.S., whose standards have been unofficially used by major Canadian beef-packing plants for a number of years, as the American system provides “better information for its businesses,” said Klassen.

“With the official adoption, this same information will be communicated to beef producers, who will also benefit from a greater ability to identify genetics and management practices that enhance carcass yield,” he said.

This shift should better facilitate trade between Canada and the U.S.

“It’s always easier to communicate when you’re using the same language,” said Bergen. “It was always a little bit confusing when it came to selling Canadian beef in the States. We had the Canadian yield grading language and the U.S. yield grading language.

“Switching to the same five yield classes as the States means it will be way simpler to make those comparisons in what we’re selling in both markets.”

Shifting genetics

For producers, it will also be easier to get better estimates of carcass value from the packers.

Take, for instance, carcasses that top out at the highest possible grade.

Those well-marbled carcasses have plenty of muscle and not a lot of external fat, so they’re more efficient for the feedlot operator to produce — but also more economical for the packer to process, as there’s less fat to trim off.

Under the new grading system, it will be “way simpler” to identify those carcasses and price them accordingly, said Bergen.

“Having the ability to identify those is going to facilitate putting a premium price on the ones they really want — the ones that will make them the most money,” he said. “On the flip side, you’ll also be able to identify really fat carcasses and more strategically tag the biggest discounts on the ones you don’t want.”

And there are differences.

A study by federal researchers examined a number of carcasses using both systems. It found 50.7 per cent of carcasses graded Canada 1 (leanest), 33.7 per cent were in the second grade, and the remainder in lowest (fattest) category. But when graded on the U.S. method, only 19.6 per cent made the top yield grade with 41.9 per cent making the second top grade. Most of the rest fell into the middle grade with a small percentage given one of the bottom two grades.

The animals on either end of the spectrum are least common, and that’s where genetic selection will come in — “identifying and propagating the ones that are more desirable and culling the stock that are producing the least desirable.”

Canadian producers have already seen that shift in the marbling standards that were used for quality grades. Those grades were harmonized with the U.S. in 1997, and over the past 20 years, there have been “real changes in the proportions of the different yield grades, as well as the proportion of the different marbling grades,” said Bergen.

“Back then, producers and feedlot operators were responding to the price signals coming down from the packers, who were saying they wanted more marbling. That’s what the consumers wanted and they were paying premiums for it. So over time, even though marbling is pretty difficult to predict, feedlot operators started feeding animals that would give them that and seedstock producers began putting emphasis on trying to increase marbling.”

But that had a ripple effect on yield grades.

Packers wanted marbling so badly that they decreased their discounts on the yield grade side, so feeders had less disincentive to produce fat carcasses. Cattle simply went on feed longer to increase the marbling, and the back fat went up at the same time.

“Now, because there are more yield grades and more distribution, it will help the whole system identify which cattle are producing the best carcasses and which aren’t,” said Bergen.

“That will help with the selection decisions on the seedstock side, but also on the feeder side. When they’ve got better information about the genetics that are coming in, there’s going to be better ability to feed cattle more appropriately to reach those end points.”

But developing that type of genetic selection and refined feeding program is a “long ways off,” Bergen cautioned.

“Anything that involves genetics on the beef side takes decades to see any substantive change,” he said.

“But in terms of identifying the seedstock that will have the potential to produce progeny that will ultimately give a better carcass — that stuff does exist.”

Ultimately, any shifts to genetic selection and feeding programs will be market driven, so producers should take their cues from the end customer before making any changes to their management practices, said Bergen.

“Feedlot operators will always respond to the price signals that they get from the packer, and that will ultimately inform the kind of cattle that they’re seeking out and buying.”

About the author

Reporter

Jennifer Blair is a Red Deer-based reporter with a post-secondary education in professional writing and nearly 10 years of experience in corporate communications, policy development, and journalism. She's spent half of her career telling stories about an industry she loves for an audience she admires--the farmers who work every day to build a better agriculture industry in Alberta.

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