What is good carcass data, and what is it worth?

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 feedlot performance.

“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 head.”

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 cheap.”

“Of course,” he adds, “carcass data isn’t worth anything if you don’t use it.”