When it comes to setting price points to the consumer, you can’t put a price tag on the value of safety and wholesomeness.

Beef Technical Manager / Vita Plus Corp

However, the industry can charge for differences in the expected quality of an eating experience.

Consequently, in 1916, the USDA set up parameters in an attempt to give consumers an idea of what to expect when purchasing their beef cut of choice.

It’s extremely rare that a select carcass is worth more per hundredweight (cwt) than one that is choice.

As I put this article together, the choice-select spread is $8.53 on a carcass weight basis per cwt.


A 1,300-pound steer that dresses at 63 percent would yield a carcass of 819 pounds.

The value for that carcass would be nearly $70 greater for one that rolls choice compared to one that grades select.

If that animal hits premium choice, add another $4.65 per cwt and tack on another $16.57 per cwt for prime. These premiums are too large to be ignored.

I think it’s obvious to most of us that one of the most important criteria for getting cattle to safely grade is to have the right genetics in place.

Certain breeds and lines within breeds have a genetic advantage to reach the choice and premium choice grades.

The caveat is that you have to have the tools in place to allow these cattle to reach their genetic potential. We cannot get cattle to grade past what their genetics allow.

However, we can focus on preventing management shortcomings and ensure that poor decisions don’t get in the way of the animal’s genetic potential.

inspecting the quality of a carcass

Vitamins and marbling

One of the biggest influencers of getting cattle to grade is nutritional impacts. This holds true not only while cattle are on feed at the feedyard but also before they get there.

Research continues to show that early-weaned cattle placed on higher-grain diets will have an advantage in grading when they are harvested at their terminal endpoint.

Some vitamins may have a deleterious effect on marbling. Research conducted at Ohio State University has shown that cattle on lower vitamin A diets may have a tendency to produce higher-quality carcasses than those on higher vitamin A levels.

Cattle that graze lush green grasses, which have naturally high levels of vitamin A, before they enter the feedyard could potentially have a more challenging time marbling and achieving higher-quality grades. It takes roughly 100 days for cattle to reduce these high levels of vitamin A.

Drought or low cow milk production are other pre-feedyard nutritional factors that may negatively impact marbling.

Management factors such as supplementing creep feed can help overcome some of these obstacles. However, if enhancing marbling is your goal, feedstuffs that will ultimately provide glucose to the muscle, like cereal grains, are preferred.

Marbling and implant protocol

Another point to consider when evaluating the effects of creep feeding on marbling is whether or not cattle are gaining at or above their lean gain potential without creep feed.

If they are not, then creep feeding will probably help cattle grade down the line. If they are gaining at their potential, then creep feeding likely will not help marbling deposition. Instead, cattle will just deposit more subcutaneous and visceral fat.

While in the feedyard, caloric intake must allow for cattle to deposit intramuscular fat to their potential.

If cattle are provided energy below their lean gain potential, they won’t have enough leftover energy to drive marbling deposition.

This premise holds true when we evaluate implanting and its effects. We know implanting cattle shifts the growth curve and increases the lean gain potential of cattle.

When we implant cattle early in the feeding phase, that shift in potential coincides with stepping cattle up on lower-energy diets.

Research conducted at University of Nebraska and South Dakota State University has shown that delaying the initial implant can have a positive impact on quality grade.

In the Nebraska study, 476-pound steer calves were acclimated for 14 days. Half the calves were implanted right away while the other half were implanted 30 days after the acclimation period.

The delayed implanted cattle graded 92 percent choice while the early implanted cattle graded 68 percent choice. Average daily gain, hot carcass weight, fat thickness, ribeye area and yield grade were unaffected by implant protocol.

In the South Dakota study, 650-pound steer cattle were either non-implanted, implanted (E-TBA) at 650 pounds or not implanted until they reached 850 pounds (E-TBA).

When evaluating premium choice grades, the non-implanted cattle were 24 percent qualifiers, while the late implanted cattle were 23 percent. The cattle implanted at 650 pounds achieved only 8 percent.

Health and quality grade

Another strong negative correlation exists between health and quality grade. Data analyzed from the Iowa Tri-County Steer Carcass Futurity shows that cattle treated for respiratory disease experience lower-quality grade than their non-treated contemporaries.

Cattle treated more than once for respiratory disease have an even greater reduction. Animal disposition also correlated negatively with quality grade.

Cattle that received lower, more docile scores had higher, more desirable marbling scores.

Factors that occur while the calf is still gestating may also affect the outcome of that animal’s carcass quality at harvest.

Researchers at several institutions are evaluating the effects of fetal programming and how cow nutrition can impact the calf’s performance throughout its life.

One study at South Dakota State University evaluated the bred heifer plane of nutrition and determined the expression of the genes responsible for fat deposition.

It found that heifers fed diets on a high plane of nutrition gave birth to calves with more gene expression for fat cell formation than those on an intermediate or low plane. While much work is to be done on this subject, it is intriguing.

Additionally, a study at the University of Wyoming evaluated cows gestated on native range versus improved pastures.

The calves from cows grazing the improved pastures weighed more, gained faster and had improved marbling scores at harvest relative to those calves from cows grazing native range.

Many factors aside from genetics can have an impact on the ultimate carcass quality of feedlot cattle.

Developing a plan and implementing sound management can help to accomplish your goals, regardless of how your cattle are marketed.

Work with your consultant to develop strategies to produce cattle with carcasses that best fit your marketing system.  end mark


TOP: Feedstuffs with cereal grains can provide glucose to the muscle to enhance marbling.

BOTTOM: The path to high-grade carcasses begins with genetics, but is fortified with nutrition, implant protocol and monitoring of health.  Photos courtesy of Progressive Cattleman staff.

chad howlett

Chad Howlett

Beef Technical Manager
Vita Plus