Michael Cox has been studying in Iowa for the past four months where he watched the Irish beef crisis unfold. Here, he looks at the US beef industry and how it differs to the Irish beef sector.
US beef carcass specifications have changed only slightly over the past 50 years. The current specifications require cattle under 36 months and 470kg carcass weight.
Previously, the carcass weight limit was 425kg but, due to a persistent drought over the last five years which has reduced cattle supply, the weight limit has increased to 470kg in an effort to meet the shortfall. The beef producing states surrounding the Texas Panhandle have been worst affected by the drought. As a result, the national cow herd declined by 1% or 253,000 in 2013.
The lucrative Japanese import market, a key market for US beef has also changed the accepted age limit from 24 to 30 months, which suits larger carcasses.
The grading system of Yield Grades from 1 to 5 is similar to the EUROP grid. Unlike Ireland, a Quality Grid is also used in the US. This grid measures age, marbling, and predicted eating quality on a Prime, Choice, Select, Standard scale. Manual grading is carried out by USDA officials at all plants.
The major difference between the US and Irish grading systems is the payment for quality in the US beef sector. There are substantial benefits for producing higher quality animals with better Yield Grades. Yield Grade 3 cattle are currently making $20 per 50Kg more than Yield Grade 4 carcasses. The Quality grid offers a $5 per 50kg bonus between Choice and Select carcasses.
Angus cattle perform best on the US beef grid. The Angus marbling, muscling and large rib eye area results in higher Yield Grades and better prices. Dairy-bred US beef is heavily discounted as they simply don’t have the volume of meat needed for high Yield Grades.
Another difference is the use of ‘Breed Specific Grids’. Many breed societies such as Angus, Hereford and Limousin have established grids which suit their breeds. For example, the Angus Society allows farmers to sell Angus-sired beef on the CAB (Certified Angus Beef) grid. Once approximately 70% of a farmer’s cattle meet the CAB requirements, the remaining out-of-spec’ cattle are not docked.
Overall, beef farmers in the Iowa region can expect high prices for the coming years as the national herd slowly begins to stabilize. Iowan farmers are fortunate to be able to switch between corn and beef production depending on market conditions, however many large feedlots in the southern states simply shut down or go bust when profit returns are not viable.
Special thanks to Jon DeClerk, Senior Livestock Judging Lecturer at Iowa State University, who provided information for this article.