What is good carcass data, and what
is it worth?
OCTOBER 02, 2007
By Troy Smith
For some calf-sellers, ignorance is bliss. What happens to
their calf crops after the critters are sold is of no concern.
Some other cow-calf producers never forget that someone is going
to feed their calves. Those producers know performance in the
feedlot matters. So does the value of the finished product.
Animal performance and carcass merit will determine whether that
“someone” wants to feed more calves from certain sources.
All cattle contribute to the reputation of their source. But
what kind of reputation is it? Driven by the need to know, more
conscientious cow-calf producers are seeking feedlot performance
and carcass data on their home-raised calves. Whether they
retain ownership or arrange to retrieve the data from subsequent
owners, more producers see value in the data.
With the advancement of grid-marketing, where the finished
animal’s value is subject to the premiums and discounts
associated with carcass merit, having carcass data becomes
increasingly important. Producers count on good carcass data to
tell them where their calves stand, and for directions to where
they might need to be. Good data can be a great tool to enhance
genetic selection for carcass merit. But what is “good” carcass
data, and what is it worth?
According to Scott Greiner, Virginia Tech animal scientist,
good carcass data includes measurements of hot carcass weight,
ribeye area, external fat, yield grade and, of course, marbling
which is the chief determinant of quality grade. Greiner says
group data can be useful, but individual data is better.
Group or pen data can give the producer an idea of where, on
average, those cattle fit, with regard to industry
acceptability, says Greiner. A producer might squeeze more
information out of the data by looking at trait distribution, or
variation within the group. There will be variation within any
group, but it can offer clues to which traits need improvement.
For example, what percentage of the cattle produced carcasses
that graded Choice or better, compared to the percentages of
Select and Standard? What was the percentage of carcasses
achieving Yield Grade 3 or lower, and how many were discounted
as Yield Grade 4 and 5? How many were too light, too heavy or
near either extreme of carcass weight acceptability? What about
the variation in ribeye size?
“To be most useful, any data collected needs to be
representative of genetics and management, on a whole-herd
basis. And don’t jump to conclusions based on one year’s data.
Use it as a benchmark and see if it’s repeatable. After the
second or third year, a producer can act on it,” cautions
Greiner. “But it’s hard to evaluate specific sires or cow
families with group data. For that, it’s best to have data on
individual animals of known parentage.”
Gathering individual data is the goal of Missouri producers
involved in South Ozarks Premier Beef Marketing Group,
coordinated by University of Missouri Extension personnel.
Comprised primarily of producers with small breeding herds, the
group’s members have adopted similar pre-weaning management
protocols and commingle their calves for backgrounding and
marketing purposes. They collectively merchandise five
semi-loads of cattle per year, courting buyers willing to
provide feedlot and carcass data on individual animals. Some
year’s they retain part-interest in the calves, by partnering
with a feeder.
According to South Ozarks’ current president, West Plains
producer Al Vance, group data might help lure future bidders,
but it’s certainly not as effective in implementing genetic
improvement. For several years, Vance and fellow participants
have used individual carcass data to help direct selection of
sires and replacement females. And cows become likely cull
candidates, if their calves repeatedly fail to meet the
producers’ standards for carcass merit.
“Getting carcass data is only half of it. We want to know how
the calves feed just as much,” states Vance. “Historically, our
cattle have fed well – good gains and respectable feed
efficiency. We don’t intend to lose that. But we want more of
them to hit the target of a 750-pound, Yield Grade 2 carcass
that grades Choice or better.”
When he first started receiving data, Vance admits surprise
at how few of his calves graded Choice. And he learned that
Choice is worth a lot more than Select on most pricing grids.
Consequently, selection for improved marbling became a priority.
More recent data shows a 20 percent improvement in the number of
Choice carcasses, while maintaining acceptable yield grades and
“The data can tell you a lot about your herd. The more
improvement you need to make, the more the data is worth,” says
Vance. “For me, personally, I’d say it’s been worth about $20 a
Scott Greiner notes that how cattle are fed and marketed also
matter. It’s not all genetics. Cattle must be managed
consistently well, harvested at an appropriate end-point and
marketed through the same or a similar grid for the data to be
most useful. Furthermore, uniform collection of data contributes
to its quality and value.
Retrieving data after selling calves isn’t always easy,
Greiner warns. It’s generally much easier when producers
retained ownership. Still, he calls the availability of carcass
data dramatically improved. That’s not to say it’s free. In
Greiner’s experience with Virginia Tech’s retained ownership
program, the cost of complete data runs in the neighborhood of
$8 per head. The cost to South Ozarks producers is similar.
“What it is worth to an individual producer will vary. It’s
different for everyone, depending on how they use it,” Greiner
says. “However, the difference in grid-value between the top end
and the bottom end of a set of finished steers is about $200 per
head. Year-in and year-out, when you take out all of the
variables, it’s still about $200. It takes time, obviously, but
if a producer can add $100 per head to the bottom-end steers
(through improved carcass merit) it makes the $8 cost look
“Of course,” he adds, “carcass data isn’t worth anything if
you don’t use it.”