How to read and understand the daily beef prices

Producer Question from 2009

Q: How do you read and understand the daily beef prices as stated in the current ag price listed here? (September, 2009)

A: The prices are in $/cwt or $/hundred pounds of animal.

The USDA market news service reports on four classes of cull cows. The four classes are divided primarily on fatness.

Four classes

The highest conditioned cull cows are reported as "Breakers". They usually are quite fleshy and generally have excellent dressing percentages. Body condition score 7 and above are required to be "Breakers".

The next class is a more moderate conditioned group of cows called "Boners" or "Boning Utility". These cows usually would fall in the body condition score grades of 5 to 7. Many well-nourished commercial beef cows would be graded "Boners".

The last two groups of cows as reported by the market news service are the "Leans" and "Lights". These cows are very thin (Body condition scores 1 - 4). They are in general expected to be lower in dressing percentage than the fleshier cows and are more easily bruised while being transported than are cows in better body condition. "Lights" are thin cows that are very small and would have very low (less than 500 pounds) hot carcass weights.

Leans and Lights are nearly always lower in price per pound than are the Boners. "Lights" often bring the lowest price per pound because the amount of saleable product is small, while the overhead costs of harvesting and processing are about the same as larger, fleshier cows.

Feeder Grade system

The other numbers are part of a Feeder Grade system that describes the cattle in regard to skeletal size (frame size), muscling, and thriftiness.

Frame size is used because frame is an inherited characteristic that is not greatly affected by normal management practices. Frame size relates to height but also to the weight at which an animal will produce a carcass of a given grade. Larger framed cattle typically reach equal fat thickness at heavier weights than smaller framed cattle.

The three frame scores normally used are Large, Medium and Small, referred to as L, M and S, respectively.

  • Large Frame (L): Large frame cattle are thrifty, tall and long bodied for their age. Steers would be expected to produced the amount of external (subcutaneous) fat opposite the 12th rib, usually about .5 inch, normally associated with the U.S. Choice grade when their live weight exceeds 1200 pounds. Heifers would not be expected to produce Choice carcasses until their live weight exceeds 1000 pounds.
  • Medium Frame (M): Medium frame cattle are thrifty and moderate in height and body length for their age. Steers would be expected to produce U.S. Choice carcasses, about .5 inch fat at 12th rib, at live weights of 1000 to 1200 pounds. Heifers would be expected to produce Choice carcasses at 850 to 1000 pounds.
  • Small Frame (S): Small frame cattle are thrifty but are shorter in height and body length than specified for Medium frame cattle. Steers would be expected to produce U.S. Choice carcasses, about .5 inch fat at 12th rib, at live weights less than 1000 pounds. Heifers would be expected to produce Choice carcasses at live weights of about 850 pounds.

The frame size portion of the grade standard must be determined by an evaluation of the animal's skeletal size in relation to its age. For example, two feeder cattle with the same height and body length but differing substantially in age would not be the same frame size. The appearance of feeder cattle can be use to estimate age. As feeder cattle mature, their ears decrease in size in relation to their heads; the muzzle becomes wider; the head becomes longer in relation to its width; and the tail increases in length and exhibits a more prominent switch.

Frame size and breed should not be automatically equated. The thickness (muscling) grades range from Number 1 to 4.

  • Number 1 muscled cattle show predominant beef breeding. They are moderately thick and full in the forearm and gaskin, with a well-rounded appearance through the back and loin and moderate width between the legs (both front and rear). Cattle show this thickness with a slightly thin covering of fat, but that cover may vary.
  • Number 2 muscled cattle show a high proportion of beef breeding. A slight degree of dairy breeding also may be detected. They are slightly thick and full in the forearm and gaskin. They show a rounded appearance through the back and loin with slight width between the front and rear legs. Like the Number 1s, the Number 2s show this thickness with a slightly thin covering of fat which may vary.
  • Number 3 muscled cattle are thrifty and thin through the forequarter and the middle part of the rounds. The forearm and gaskin are thin, and the back and loin have a sunken appearance. The legs are closely set.
  • Number 4 muscled cattle are still thrifty, but they have less thickness that the minimum requirements for the Number 3 grade.
Inferior grade

There is one final grade - Inferior- which includes cattle that are unthrifty and are not expected to perform normally in their present state. Inferior cattle can have any combination of thickness and frame size.

Impact on a calf producer

How will this affect you as a calf producer as you sell or market your calves in the future? Where we have had only four grades or so to concern ourselves with in the past, we now have 13. They are L1, L2, L3, L4, M1, M2, M3, M4, S1, S2, S3, S4, and Inferior. This will give potential buyers an even clearer picture of the calves offered for sale. Producers and buyers alike will benefit as the entire beef industry looks to improve the quality and consistency of the product that eventually finds its way to our dinner table.

Please see the U.S. Department of Agriculture's official U.S. Standards for Grades of Feeder Cattle document (PDF, 305 KB) for more information.