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How do I know if the beef I'm buying is finished?

Many consumers have a difficult time picking a quality cut of meat out of the meat case, much less knowing if the side of beef they are purchasing is going to provide a quality eating experience.  I want to help you be an informed consumer whether you are buying from us or shopping around.  So here are questions that you can ask of whoever is trying to sell you beef to get an idea if they really don't know what they're doing.  If you have questions that aren't answered here, please don't hesitate to contact us.

Breed:

What breed is the steer?   Yes it matters.   Most English breeds (Angus, Hereford, Shorthorn, etc) will finish at about 1400-1600lb live weight.   Smaller breeds, such as Dexters or Lowlines will finish at a lower weight because their mature size is smaller.   Continental breeds such as Simmental, Charolais, or Limousin are going to need to be heavier at slaughter than either of the other two groups simply because they're a more massive breed and will just be that much heavier at the maturity they need to be in order to marble.   Most continental breeds are leaner, and more muscular and will not have the marbling ability that Angus cattle have.   When the continental breeds were introduced into the largely English-influenced U.S. cattle herd in the mid-20th century, the percentage of carcasses that graded choice or higher plummeted while average carcass weight increased.   All cattle that are black are not Angus.   Virtually every breed has introduced black genetics into their gene pool in a desire to garner the live animal premium for Angus from unsuspecting buyers.

Holstein and Jersey are dairy breeds that have been selected and developed specifically for milk production with no attention paid to carcass quality.    These steer calves are very cheap to buy because the dairy industry only needs the females, most of their bull power is provided via frozen semen from a few hundred top bulls for the whole country.   So many backyard producers buy a cheap fifty dollar calf and figure they can raise it for meat.   And it can be done.   Cedar River Farms, a division of JBS, feeds Holsteins and they get a lot of Choice and Prime grade beef.   But they do it by feeding those cattle on concentrates for 300 days.   English breeds like Angus generally can meet their marbling potential in 120 days on concentrates.   So if someone is trying to sell you a dairy or dairy-cross steer, find out what their feeding regimen is.  If they don't know what they're doing just plan on having the whole thing made into ultra-lean hamburger.  

Beware of someone that tells you a steer is "Angus-cross".   Many of these are Angus-sired steers from a dairy cow.   If they tell you it's an Angus-cross, your question should be "crossed with what other breed?"

Club-calf breeds are some specialty breeds that are popular with 4-H and FFA kids.  Breeds such as Chiania, Chi-Angus, and Maine-Anjou, many times mixed with Shorthorn. Generally you will only see these for sale as finished steers from youth auctions at county fairs.   The problem with these cattle is that they are show animals.  So while they are generally fed to have fat cover, the genetic selection of these steers has been to focus on winning in the show ring, not on carcass quality.   So if you look at catalogs of club calf genetics, they talk about flashy color, or hair growth (to allow for covering of defects or lack of finish with fluffed hair).   Virtually NO interest is paid to selecting genetics for marbling or tenderness.   Some counties will have a carcass competition for those market steers following the auction and subsequent slaughter, but as the animal has already been sold to the buyer at that point, there is literally no financial incentive to do well in the carcass portion of the competition.  There is a reason that the commercial beef industry does not seek out these genetics.

Age of the animal:

As covered in our "What makes our beef different" page, maturity is an important factor in creating quality beef.   If the animal is too young, like 12-14 months old, even if everything else was going for it with genetics and ration formulation, it has only started being able to deposit fat as up to a year of age it has been putting its energy into growth rather than intramuscluar fat deposition.   Commercial feedlots will buy grass-fed calves as yearlings or long yearlings at 850 to 950lbs live weight to put them on concentrates and START finishing them.    

Carcass weight:

If the animal has already been slaughtered prior to you purchasing the half, ask what the carcass weight is.   For an English steer (like Angus), a minimum carcass weight for a finished steer would be about 700 lbs.  If it's much below that, I'd question if the steer was old enough or fed enough.   Smaller breeds discussed above would be lighter, and the continentals would be heavier on average.   If the animal hasn't been slaughtered yet, ask the producer what their carcasses usually average.  If they don't have an answer for you, that's a red flag

What have they been fed?

Diet is critical.   If the cattle haven't been fed the proper balance of protein and energy, they might finish by accident, but most likely won't.    A ruminant will generally eat 2-3% of their body weight in dry matter PER DAY.   So a 1400lb steer should be eating close to 40lbs of food per day, and a majority of that should be in concentrates.   If the grower tells you they've given the calf a coffee can of grain a day, that's a drop in the bucket as far as what they actually need.


How long has the person been raising locker beef?

Most cattle ranchers don't raise beef directly for slaughter.  The reason is that it's not easy to do it well.  Just like many of us could probably frame a house to live in, we'd likely make enough mistakes that we'd end up with either a sub-par house where the walls are less than plumb and the roof leaks when it rains.  Thus it generally pays to hire a professional

If the producer hasn't been raising beef for a number of years with a regular customer base, they likely still have some mistakes to make, and quite possibly don't know what they don't know.

The most common mistakes that I see backyard growers making with their steers is that they either don't feed enough (because they don't understand nutrition) they don't feed long enough (because they don't know how to tell if they are finished), or most commonly a combination of the two.


Either ask for pictures or go see the live animal if possible

This may seem odd, but it's really important.   "Finish" is a visual assessment of fat covering on the animal.  It's important to recognize that fat covering will not tell you inherently the degree of marbling that that animal has, as the two traits are genetically independent of each other.   What the fat covering WILL tell you is if the animal was fed a diet that allows them the metabolic luxury of putting on fat.  So while a visually fat steer isn't guaranteed to have marbling, a steer without fat cover will definitely NOT be marbled.

Cattle "finish" or deposit fat starting at the front of the animal and moving backwards and from the top of the animal down.   So fat deposited in the brisket is going to be one of the first places that you will see it in the process.  From there it will work its way back covering the ribs (you shouldn't be able to easily see any of their ribs) giving a smooth appearance to the body.   There are fat-pads on either side of the tail-head that should be noticeable.   The last place that a steer will put on fat is in the area called the cod.   This is the remainder of their scrotum.  This won't be visible in all steers, but if you see it, you'll know that the steer has been fed to its genetic potential.  

Why this is important is that by looking at a live animal, I can't tell you if it would grade Select, Choice, or Prime, but if the animal doesn't have fat deposition in those areas, I can definitely tell you it won't  make a premium grade.   I will try to add some pictures soon to illustrate what I've laid out here.