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Published September 24, 2012, 10:39 AM

We've come so far

In this day and age, would you buy a sedan that only got 13 miles per gallon?

In this day and age, would you buy a sedan that only got 13 miles per gallon?

Seems a little absurd now, but that was average in the 1970s. It really shows how far the auto industry has come in improving fuel economy.

That same decade, a farmer would be pleased with a corn crop that binned 80 or 90 bushels per acre. Today, that’s a disaster in most places.

But if you think those gains are impressive, take a moment to think of what America’s beef producers have accomplished.

Cattlemen used to brag about their cattle reaching “more than 60 percent Choice.” In the past couple of years, U.S. Department of Ariculture harvest reports show the national average was hovering near 65 percent Choice or better.

High standard

Nobody brags about just being average, especially not if they sell on a grid. In the Upper Midwest, cattlemen held to a fairly high standard if they want to beat plant averages and find themselves in the premiums.

Hitting 60 percent Choice won’t cut it.

When premium Choice branded programs emerged, it was really something to get 15 or 20 percent that reached those marbling levels in commercial cattle. That’s when it was incidental production, or luck of the draw that landed those cattle in branded programs.

Today, some cattlemen have made these upper-end markets their goal. They’ve built business plans that count on it. Some scoff at a number like 50 percent, thinking if 100 percent fit a premium program, just imagine the financial reward.

Beyond that, there’s a tier of producers who look to the highest level.

Striving for improvement

Take Missouri cattleman John Osborn, who routinely sends in loads that reach more than 50 percent Prime, and he’s still looking to improve. The industry average is 3 percent. What once was thought of as a happy accident, one or two in a pen, is now a logical target with premiums of $200 or more per head.

As students return to class each fall, many are assessed on what they remember from last year or on what they already know. It’s an evaluation to find their benchmark level going into the school year.

The beef industry has a similar measure: the National Beef Quality Audit. The checkoff-funded report determines how far the industry has come and how far it has to go on consumer acceptance and meeting beef demand.

Done every five years since 1991, the 2011 results say the industry needs more quality. Consumers called for 5 percent Prime and 30 percent premium Choice. Actual production levels for all beef in those categories during 2011 were 2 percent and 20 percent, 14 points short of expectations.

To some, that’s inspiring. It’s an objective to reach toward. To others, it’s a little bit depressing.

But the hard data tells the positive story: The 1996 audit revealed the lowest carcass quality of all reports at 49 percent Choice and Prime, but it’s been an upward trend since then. Making stops at 51 percent in 2001 and 55 percent in 2006, before settling at 61 percent in 2011.

That’s some improvement, and unlike the auto business, no government mandate said the industry had to make it. The consumers asked for it and producers responded.

That’s an accomplishment worth basking in, and celebrating — with a T-bone, perhaps?

Editor’s Note: Reiman is the industry information assistant director for Certified Angus Beef LLC. Reach her at MReiman@certifiedangusbeef.com or 308-784-2294.

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