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Heavier Weights: Is There a Problem?

25 November 2014

Cattle are getting progressively heavier, which is great from a productivity angle but can cause a headache for restaurants.

Larry Coah, vice president of Certified Angus Beef writes that, once cattle prices have been mulled over, weights is next on the agenda for producers. 

In early September, we heard the report of a record high for steer carcass weight of 885 pounds (lb.), writes Mr Coah.

By mid-September that was 889 lb.; by mid-October it was 896 lb.

As you can see in the figure (below), few things have been as linear in the past 20 years as average carcass weight increases. Even $8 corn did not slow the trend. So why is this occurring?

We would argue genetics is a huge part of the equation. Today’s cattle can be fed to 950-lb. or even 1,000-lb. carcasses without excess fat.

Certainly feeding and management strategies have had an impact. Today, many feeder cattle are grown to 850 or 900 lb. before entering a feedlot.

Utilization of beta-agonists has also had an impact. Is this trend good or bad? A bit of both. As an industry, it has allowed continued growth in beef production with fewer cows.

But it has presented a challenge for our foodservice partners who want to serve an ideal steak. You may know all of this, and that steer carcasses outweigh those from heifers.

But here are some points I bet you did not know about carcass weights. First, the degree of difference in steer and heifer carcasses is a bit surprising these days at 85 lb.

Two years ago that was only 68 lb., which makes us wonder why the increase? One can only speculate, but perhaps heavier heifers are being retained for breeding.

Second, a little informal math reveals the impact of heavier carcasses on the amount of beef for sale: Each pound of added carcass weight creates .6 lb. of edible product, so every 5-lb. increase nets 3 lb. more beef on the plate. What does it mean for the Certified Angus Beef ® brand?

Today, our average steer and heifer combined carcass weight average is 866 lb., compared to 856 lb. a year ago. Historically, CAB® carcass weights tag along with industry averages. Why does the restaurant trade fuss about heavy carcasses?

Part of it relates to the great variability in the size of the whole rib or loin primal in a box, and how that affects ribeye size, steak thickness, cooking and plate presentation.

An interesting study was done by meat scientists Leich and Behrends at Mississippi State University. They collected strip loin, ribeye and top butt (sirloin) primals from carcasses weighing 500, 600, 700, 800 and 900 lb. Then they cut 12-oz ribeye and strip steaks or 10oz sirloin steaks.

To achieve these steak weights, the thickness of the ribeye/strip steak was 2 inches for the light carcass weights, but only 0.85 inches for the steaks from heavy carcasses.

For the sirloin, the range was from 1.1 inches to 1.9 inches. Now we can see the cooking challenge our industry presents for the chef.

Will the increases continue? No one’s crystal ball is perfect, but we would speculate with current grain and cattle prices and market logic, the 900-lb. mark will soon be history as carcasses keep getting heavier.

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