Understanding yield and quality grades when marketing cattle

Amanda Cauffman
Quality grades are widely used as a “language” within the beef industry, making business transactions easier and providing a vital link to support rural America.

When selling market cattle on grade and yield or packer contract, producers may receive a break-out sheet with words or abbreviations such as PRIME, CHOICE, or SELECT, potentially with a number posted behind it. These terms indicate the different grades or values paid for each carcass, but how are they determined?

Beef grading was developed by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) in 1916 as a set of standards to provide a basis for the National Meat Market Reporting Service. Beef grading is voluntary, and some processing plants may have their own codes to express carcass value. Beef grading should not be confused with inspection, as beef grading measures value and not wholesomeness and safety.

Beef grading has two components: Quality Grade and Yield Grade.

Quality grade is a value used to estimate potential palatability by evaluating the carcass’s maturity and the amount of marbling (intramuscular fat) within the ribeye. There are different uses and values for carcasses from cattle harvested at different ages, hence the need for different Quality Grades. A carcass from a “young” beef animal could receive a Quality Grade of Prime, Choice, Select, or Standard, depending on the amount of marbling within the ribeye.

 As animals age, their skeleton becomes more ossified, and their lean color changes from a bright cherry red color to a darker purplish red. Carcasses that exhibit these traits are typically considered older than 42 months and would be classified as: Commercial, Utility, Cutter, or Canner, depending on the amount of marbling within the ribeye.

Marbling is the second component of Quality Grading. Marbling is the specks of fat located in the ribeye, not seam fat. The greater the amount of marbling in the ribeye, the higher the Quality Grade and higher the value of the carcass. Prime is the highest Quality Grade on the USDA scale. Carcasses that grade Prime have a greater amount of marbling in the ribeye than carcasses that would grade Choice. A Choice carcass would have a greater amount of marbling than a carcass that grades Select.

Primal cuts from Prime carcasses are typically used in the restaurant industry or are exported to countries willing to pay a premium for higher-valued cuts. Choice Quality Grade is the most common quality grade seen, according to the USDA National Steer & Heifer Estimated Grading Percentage Report for January 9th, 2023, where roughly 74.5% graded Choice. Primal cuts that grade in upper Choice (high Choice or average Choice), also called Certified, may qualify for higher value branded and labeled programs, which adds value. Steak and roasts from Select carcasses are typically found in the local grocery store as a family-friendly, cost-effective option.

Yield Grade is the value used to estimate the amount of retail product the carcass should yield (of boneless, closely trimmed retail cuts). Yield Grades Range from 1 through 5, where 1 is   a trim, heavy muscled carcass that would be expected to yield the highest percentage by weight of pounds of red meat and a 5 is least desirable, a fatter, lighter-muscled carcass. Yield grade 3 is considered the average.

When calculating Yield Grade, the external fat thickness over the ribeye at the 12 to 13th rib, ribeye size in conjunction with carcass weight, and kidney, heart, and pelvic fat are evaluated. Fat thickness opposite the ribeye is the largest factor when determining Yield Grade. However, ribeye size relative to the carcass weight also impacts the final Yield Grade. For example, an 850 lb carcass should have a 14.0 square inch ribeye. If the ribeye is one square inch too small, 0.3 would be added to the Yield Grade to adjust for the insufficient muscling and vice versa if the carcass had a larger ribeye area than required.

When a producer receives a cut out sheet with a Choice 3 written on it, that means the carcass had a Choice Quality grade and a Yield grade of 3. Yield and Quality Grades are important when talking about a carcasses palatability, cutability (the amount of boneless, closely trimmed retail cuts) and overall value.

Amanda Cauffman

Amanda L. Cauffman is a Livestock Educator for Grant, Green, Iowa, and Lafayette Counties through UW-Madison Division of Extension

Extension University of Wisconsin-Madison