How much meat do cattle provide?

Have you ever wondered how many pounds of beef that cattle provide?  It’s a great question, and something that livestock producers and packers care a lot about:

More muscle (what becomes meat) per animal = More pounds of saleable product

So, how much meat do we get?

The average market weight (body weight of the animal the day that it ‘goes to market’, ie: when it is harvested) of beef cattle is around 1,400 pounds.  As the animal goes through the harvest process, the head, hide, blood, viscera (internal organs and digestive system), and hooves are removed.  At this point, what is left is referred to as a carcass. 

From here, we can calculate the dressing percent of the carcass.  Dressing percent is equal to the carcass weight, divided by the live weight of the animal.  For cattle, this value is typically around 63%, but can vary depending on how much muscle and fat the carcass has, as well as what gender and breed the animal was.  A high dressing percent means that more product is available to use.

At this point, the carcass is fabricated. This means that it is cut into large, wholesale cuts, and then into retail cuts (what you buy at the store: steaks, roasts, etc).  In the agriculture industry, the amount of actual saleable product is known as the amount of yield from a carcass.  This is also referred to as the percent of boneless, closely trimmed (much of the extra fat removed), retail cuts (yes, some cuts have bones that remain with the product, but many are removed).  The percent yield in beef animals is typically around 65%.

So lets take a look at an example:

Say a steer has a market weight of 1350 lbs.  We expect that animal to produce around an 850 lb carcass.  From here, we cut the carcass into saleable product and remove excess fat and bones.  We are left with approximately 553 lbs of meat. 

Now, it is important to remember that all the product that is removed before we reach our final retail cuts is able to be used!  Almost nothing from the animal is thrown out. Here are just a few examples of products besides meat that cattle provide us:

  • Hide: leather for furniture, car seats and clothing.
  • Bones:  Used to make gelatin, used in things like jello and gummy bears.
  • Fat:  Also known as tallow, used in production of biodiesel and in some cosmetics.
  • Intestines:  Cleaned and sanitized and then used for casing for sausages and other processed products.

I hope this post helps answers your question about how much meat that one animal can provide us, but don’t forget, they offer us so much more!

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Let’s Talk Quality

Last week we talked about meat inspection, which is based on wholesomeness and safety Quality grade on the other hand, is focused on determining palatability; determining how tender, how juicy, and how flavorful you can expect the meat to be.  While inspection is a legal requirement for all meat that will be sold and is supported by tax dollars, quality grade is optional and paid for by the packer.  Whether or not quality grade is used depends on the goals of each operation.

Quality grade in beef is based on two factors:

Maturity:  In order to qualify for the highest level of quality grade, the animal must be under 30 months of age.  This is determined by dentition (how many teeth they have).  As an animal gets older, the meat is known to become more tough and have a poorer color which is often seen as a turn off to consumers.  Since the packer can choose whether to use grading, carcasses that are classified as older may be determined as a “No Roll”, meaning they won’t receive a ‘rolled on’ stamp for their quality grade.  Much of the meat from this carcass will be ground for hamburger or used for jerky products, where the quality grade is not as important, rather than being used for steaks.  *Important note: Even though it may not receive a quality grade, the carcass is still inspected to ensure that it is safe to eat. *

Marbling:  The most important factor for determining quality is the level of marbling, or intramuscular fat (Fat that actually lies within the muscle).  While cooking, this fat will melt into the meat, making it juicy, tender and very flavorful.

 At the plant, the animal is ‘ribbed’, exposing the loin muscle.  Here, USDA representatives from the Agricultural Marketing Service use a camera to determine the grade.  Grades can range from:

  • Prime: Young carcass, VERY high level of marbling.  Meat should be very tender, juicy and flavorful due to the high levels of fat.
  • Choice:  Young carcass, Small to moderate level of marbling. This is the grade that is most often seen in the industry and ensures a tasty, tender product.
  • Select: Slight level of marbling but still from a young animal.  Meat in this category may still be very tender but will be less juicy than the grades above.
  • Standard: Young animal but very, very little marbling.
  • Cutter, utility, commercial: Low grades often from older animals, 100% safe to eat but may not make a tasty steak.  It is rare to see these quality grades because carcasses that would fall into this section are often not graded.

The photo on the left shows a carcass with a select grade, while the one on the right shows a choice grade. Notice the differences in marbling, or specks of fat that lie within the muscle.

To wrap this up, inspection is a legal requirement to ensure meat safety.  Quality grade is optional, but often used by packers as a method to inform consumers how palatable a product will be.  Quality grade is determined primarily by how much marbling is in the loin muscle and signifies how tender, juicy and flavorful the meat will be! 

Meat Inspection

Today, many people are concerned about the safety of their food.  We want to be certain that what we are feeding our families (and ourselves), isn’t going to cause any harm.  To ensure a product is safe, it must go through inspection and be deemed safe.

In 1906, The Jungle, written by Upton Sinclair, was published.  This book followed an immigrant family as they started a new life in the United States working in the stockyards of Chicago.  Part of the book talks about the poor working conditions for the immigrant families.  President Theodore Roosevelt read The Jungle and moved forward to pass the Federal Meat Inspection Act of 1906; requiring by law that all meat available for sale be inspected for wholesomeness.  Now, meat inspection is regulated by the Food Safety and Inspection Service, an offshoot of the United States Department of Agriculture.

There are a few different steps to inspection (although the process is similar in all species, these steps will be specific to beef):

Antemortem Inspection (ie. inspection of the animal prior to slaughter):  After the animal is unloaded at the slaughterhouse, it is inspected by a USDA Inspector or Veterinarian.  If any animals are deemed sick, injured, or unsafe for human consumption, they are removed from the food chain. 

The blue ink indicates that this beef animal was over 30 months of age. All neurological tissue and the spinal column will be removed and not available for sale.

Maturity:  Age of the cattle is very important in deciding how the carcass will be utilized.  Age is determined by dentition (how many permanent incisors they have).  If they are over 30 months of age, the carcass is clearly marked.  A beef animal over 30 months of age is at a higher risk of a neurological problem known as Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy, commonly referred to as mad cow.  Although it is highly unlikely that an animal will be infected even if over 30 months of age, extra precautions are taken just to be safe.  Meat from these animals can still be safely consumed, but all neurological tissues and the spinal column must be removed and destroyed.

Postmortem (after the animal has been slaughtered):  Once the internal organs are removed, the inspector evaluates the heart, lungs and liver to look for any signs of infection, sickness, or disease.  If all these organs pass inspection, the carcassh is deemed safe for consumption.

This is the USDA inspection stamp you will see on meat products. The number on the bottom is specific to each processing facility.

Finally, the carcass is evaluated for final inspection.  In the meat industry, there is zero tolerance for fecal matter, ingesta and milk.  If there are any signs of these contaminants, they must be cut off.  Any other signs of contamination are also removed as they may be a carrier to the three zero tolerance contaminants.  After any sign of contamination has been removed, the carcass is sprayed with 180 degree F water as a way of thermal pasteurization.  The carcass may also be steam pasteurized and sprayed with a low concentration lactic or acetic acid to hinder bacteria growth.

Once all steps of inspection have been completed, the carcass is marked with an inspection stamp.  As stated in my post about labelling, labels on all meat products require an inspection stamp.  All processors have a unique number specific to their location which is included on the inspection stamp.  I really like the app “USDA Meat and Poultry Inspection (MPI) Directory,” as it lets me type in the number on the inspection stamp and find out where my food came from, so cool!

This post just touches on the topic of inspection around the time of slaughter.  There are many additional points during meat production that are regulated to ensure a safe, wholesome product for your family.  We will touch on those soon!

*All the highlighted words in this and future posts will be included in a “Common Terms” post.  They are words that I know are often used in the industry but may be a little confusing! *

Welcome to The Meating Room

While looking through Facebook this week I came across these two articles, one right after the other:

“Red meat and dairy good for a healthy diet, study suggests”

and

“Less beef, more beans: Experts say the world needs a new diet”

What?  How can this be?  It’s no wonder that so many people are skeptical about what they are buying at the grocery store when they see these mixed messages day after day.  This bothered me, so I did the best thing I could think of…

Google: “Are blogs still relevant?”

According to the web, blogs are indeed still relevant.  So here I am.  Now, this blog may not convince anybody to eat meat, and that’s okay.  That’s not the purpose of this website.  I do hope, however, to share some information that I have learned through my experiences and education to at least help put people at ease about what they’re feeding their family. I hope to use this platform to share what I know about what it takes for meat to get from the farm, to the grocery store, to your kitchen table.  I want to introduce you to the meat industry and help to answer questions and address common concerns.

So, welcome to The Meating Room!  Here, we will touch on topics like safe handling tips, meaning behind the label, farming practices, inspection/grading, and much more.  I’m excited to give this a shot, and hope that through this blog we can all learn a little something about the food we eat. Thanks for joining me, now let’s get started!