Is there room for second cut cattle in the beef industry?’ To respond with a ‘yes, because they exist’ answer seems childish and condescending, but it could be correct, at least partially.
“There are always going to be those cattle no matter how hard we try,” says Steve Boyles, Beef Extension Specialist at Ohio State University. “We need people to buy, feed and fatten them for various reasons.”
Identifying Nature’s Versions of Off Cattle
Unfortunately, second cut, off-grade or simply ‘off’ cattle don’t come with an identifiable sticker on their rump. Many variations and definitions also ‘exist’ depending on who is asked. What qualifies for one operation often doesn’t match another’s.
Boyles says examples are those not grading Choice or animals lighter and smaller than the normal. They could also be mismanaged.
“They fall out of the normal of what the general expectations are or don’t match the goals of the operation.”
He stresses they weren’t necessarily born or created in such a way. External factors may have helped convert them into something less desirable over time.
“There could be genetic material to fit into the norm, but what access to nutrition did they have? What happened to them over their life to change them?”
Karl Hoppe, Livestock Systems Specialist at the Carrington Research Extension Center, North Dakota State University agrees and believes many reasons cause animals to begin life with more promise than they eventually deliver. Events and management practices conspire to throw up roadblocks.
“Sometimes they’re showcased with poorer genetics to start with,” he says. “But often they don’t have the growth abilities as the top end calves. This might not be from their specific genetics, but from outside challenges. Maybe they were weaned early because their mother died, or they had severe scours or intestinal challenges. Maybe the cow was old and didn’t milk well. They might have been born in a snowstorm and their ears and tail froze off.”
Ranch management can directly impact quality. Hoppe describes how a freshly weaned intact bull calf is discounted at auction. While physically healthy, he is less desirable for feedlots as late castration at a heavier weight is a significant health obstacle. A full month of feeding to regain wellbeing and condition might be required.
“He was a healthy bull calf. Why is he discounted that much? I’d argue castrating, weighing, feeding and watching him eat for an entire month to get back where he started, that could be the original 10 to 15 dollars a hundredweight discount when you do the math. In reality, he brought as much as anybody else. It’s not the fault of the genetics, in this case management is to blame.”
Hoppe says the situation is never perfect. “It’s the goal to have a uniform and perfect calf crop, but you might have a few oddballs. You don’t know when or how or what. And the more animals, the more of them.”
Recognizing the Lack of a Mold
Operational goals also vary widely. One owner’s inferior cattle may not fit the category of another’s. Natural, organic, grass fed, pasture to plate, hormone or antibiotic free programs all follow guidelines and rules to produce the optimal product for their niche customers.
“For a natural producer selling antibiotic free beef, a sick calf becomes a second cut animal because of treatment drugs. Other feeders might not bat an eye in their programs.”
Those making a living of buying and selling recognize off cattle as part of the equation. For example, when buying bred heifers, the sire is often unknown. Some offspring won’t match the group.
Boyles says the dairy industry is a perfect example of variable shades of quality dependent on goals of the buyer. An increasingly common practice is to use sexed beef semen in a portion of females. He outlines a research study done at Ohio State on crossbreeding of Jerseys. Highest quality cows were bred to top Jersey bulls and the bottom third were bred with the sexed semen of beef sires.
“The offspring were an improvement toward the consumption goal and better for beef production, but the kicker is, to many people, they’re still second cut. It’s not a genetic reason, but they still don’t compare to mainstream beef animals.”
Some consumers specifically look for the smaller carcass weight of dairy cross or disadvantaged calves dealt a poor hand by deficient management. Many buyers don’t have freezer space for a 1300-pound steer or wouldn’t select a 14-inch ribeye at the supermarket, preferring one the size of a porkchop.
“Not as much money is invested with these animals being less expensive at the beginning and not worth as much at the back end, but it’s the buy/sell margin. There may be a place, but I think with these second cuts, you might need to be as good a marketer as any of these other branded programs.”
He notes some clienteles want pure red steaks without marbling. “All these variations are needed, although it might be harder to see where they fit. How can cattle not fitting my goals be marketed? It’s an interesting paradigm.”
Smaller healthy calves, if handled wisely, are also beneficial before reaching the finishing lot. “We often talk about how everyone wants uniform lots. Maybe a buyer puts these singles and doubles of a second cut characteristic together. That could be a great set to feed out. You know what you’ve got and how to market them. It’s uniformity.”
Boyles says there will always be somebody’s definition of ‘second cut’ or ‘off’ cattle no matter how hard the beef industry tries to pursue top quality genetics and do the right things.
“It makes sense. Nature typically exists in a bell curve. We can move the high point left or right, but it still can be a bell curve. We need people picking up this type of cattle to give them value. They have a spot. Buyers just need to be mindful of a buy/sell margin but if handled properly, there’s a profit for someone.”