Beef 509 class helps producers think like packers

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Evaluating cattle
Cattle producers evaluate live cattle at Beef 509.

COLUMBUS — When a finished beef animal leaves the farm, it’s rare that cattle producers get to see the whole process of what it becomes.

They might occasionally get to see the hanging carcass, or the final cuts, but are usually less familiar with how it became a cut, and some of the finer details that influenced those cuts.

For the past 20 years, the Ohio Beef Council and Ohio State University have offered a hands-on live cattle workshop known as Beef 509, designed to bridge the farm gate-to-plate gap.

The program started in 1997 and is offered as a two-day, interactive seminar that walks beef producers through the process of evaluating, buying, butchering and fabricating, and lastly, tasting meat that they processed.

This year’s class

On two Saturdays in February, about 30 beef producers from across the state, ranging from hobby farmers to full-time operators, met at Ohio State’s Animal Sciences facility in Columbus.

buying cattle
Buying cattle at Beef 509.

With cattle mooing in the background, they listened to a half-dozen experts talk about the process of buying and processing finished cattle.

The first step is to “stop thinking like a producer, and to think like a packer,” said Henry Zerby, chairman of OSU’s Department of Animal Sciences.

That means thinking about things like quality versus yield, and how much money a packer can expect to get out of each animal.

Zerby said farmers often blame packers for short-changing them, when, in reality, the producer may not understand the decisions being made.

From a buyer’s perspective, the process starts by identifying the live animals. Certain details like breed, weight, muscle and fat, and sometimes even diet can be determined to some extent, but as participants found out, accuracy is limited.

Making decisions

The 33 participants were divided into seven teams, and given the challenge of buying eight live beef cattle, and following those cattle through the process of butchering and fabrication — to see which team could make the most money.

The process was competitive and difficult — just as it often is for competing packers at an auction. As Zerby pointed out, sometimes the winner is “the team that lost the least amount of money.”

John Grimes, OSU Extension beef coordinator, reminded producers that “muscle has definition,” and told them to think of a body builder versus a sumo wrestler. Fat usually makes the animal look more smooth, where as muscle leads to shape.

Another visual he gave is to think of the shape a Coke bottle, versus a canoe. The Coke bottle has a more defined and structured shape — and is a more desirable shape for a beef animal.

But as Zerby pointed out, most of a beef animal’s fat is found inside the carcass, between the muscles. Buyers can sometimes touch the animals, but have to know what they’re feeling for, and how to assess what they’re feeling.

The best bet is to know the producer, who can supply information about breed and diet, but the truest information is what the packer sees when the animal is on the rail.

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Butchering process

In a separate wing of the building, participants walked through the whole process of stunning, dehiding and butchering. The process was monitored by OSU meat staff and a U.S. Department of Agriculture inspector.

When the hides came off, the fat content was clearly visible. Participants also got to see the defects, which in some cases included abscessed livers, or bruised meat that was condemned or rendered as waste.

Henry Zerby explaining.
Henry Zerby, explaining how beef cattle are processed.

All parts of the animal were evaluated, including the lymph glands, kidneys, liver and other internal organs, before the carcass was cut and hung in the meat locker.

While some animals are bought live, others are bought by the hanging weight, or according to a grid analysis that quantifies quality and yield.

Sam Roberts, of United Producers, walked participants through the different types of grids, and how yield and quality grades determine price.

Most cattle grade somewhere in the middle, he said, with only about 5 percent of cattle that make prime grade, and even less that make prime and also have the highest yield grade.

But even slight differences in carcass quality can have a significant impact on incentives and penalties, he said, and therefore the overall value of the animal.

Animal care

One thing that can affect the quality grade — aside from the breed and genetics — is the care given to the animal.

Steve Boyles, Ohio’s beef quality assurance coordinator, said facilities and transportation are key factors to maintaining the health of the animal, and a quality carcass.

“If we don’t load that animal properly, we’re hurting ourselves,” he said. “Two years of hard work can be undone by poor handling in the last ride.”

He said producers need to be responsible with how they move cattle, using moving aids responsibly and ethically. Electrical prods are acceptable, he said, but only 5 percent of the time.

A bigger factor is making sure the setup is accommodating — that the trailer is sized appropriately and that all areas are well-lit and visible, so the animals will be less frightened.

Animals that are more flighty, or that have been rushed during the loading process, often have a lower quality of meat, and are more susceptible to carcass bruising, said Boyles, who also is an animal sciences professor at Ohio State.

“Loading and unloading cattle is every bit as important as special teams are to the Ohio State Buckeyes,” he said.

Learning experience

Jason Fox and his wife, Mindy, were two of the participants this year. They operate a cow-calf farm in Seneca County, near Tiffin.

Mindy said because they sell most of their animals as calves, she just assumed the carcass quality was up to the next person. But the 509 program helped her to see everything that affects the carcass, even from the time animals are young.

“The decisions I make within the first four months of that calf’s life really affect what’s going to happen when that animal becomes a hanging carcass,” she said.

Beef 509 team
A team discusses which cattle it wants to purchase during the contest.

Her team thought they purchased good cattle during the sale, but ended up finishing fifth. Part of the reason was the discovery of bruised meat that had to be thrown away.

“I bet we threw at least seven pounds of what should have been good meat, right into the dumpster,” she said. “It’s interesting to see what that looks like once you peel back the skin and get into the carcass.”

She said she could take the class a second time, and probably learn even more.

In fact, some producers do take a continuation class — called Beef 510, Zerby said.

Staying relevant

Over the years, Zerby and other organizers have worked to keep the program relevant for today’s beef producers. That means evolving with the times, and meeting the needs of changing consumer appetites.

“As the supply chain has changed to meet the consumers’ needs, we’ve changed the program as well,” Zerby said.

Today, there is more emphasis on convenience-type cuts, and newer, processed cuts that more consumers are demanding. The program also shows producers how lower-value cuts can be manipulated to increase flavor and tenderness, and add value.

“We had to start looking at what could we do with that carcass, that got more consumers eating more beef, more often,” said Elizabeth Harsh, executive director of the Ohio Cattlemen’s Association and the Ohio Beef Council.

Zerby said producers learn from the experts, but also from each other. He said the program has made a lasting difference for many participants — whether it’s feed decisions, choosing genetics, when and how to market cattle, or how to judge live cattle.

“It’s an experience that otherwise, you (as a producer) wouldn’t be able to get,” he said.

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