Freezer Beef School Recap

By Christopher R. Raines

On Saturday, December 5th, Penn State hosted “Freezer Beef School” to teach beef producers some of the “do’s and don’ts” of direct marketing freezer beef.  Forty enthusiastic cattle producers from many different sectors, including beef cow-calf, cattle feeders, and dairy producers attended the workshop. (Due to overflow on 5 December, we also conducted the course on 12 December.)

Topics reviewed at the workshop included:

  • status of the Pennsylvania beef industry
  • strategies for marketing beef, beef cuts and yields
  • finding and working with a processor
  • impact of production methods on beef quality
  • further processed beef products
  • regulations associated with the processing and selling of beef

Discussed was the importance of The Beef Checkoff and fact that remitting the $1 to the Pennsylvania Beef Council is often overlooked in direct marketing situations.  The checkoff dollars collected go toward the development and distribution of the beef materials many direct marketers use, including beef fact sheets, the Beef Quality Assurance program, and safety research.

Surprising to many workshop participants was that Pennsylvania has more USDA-inspected beef plants than any other U.S. state, more than Kansas and Texas combined.  The top three states for beef plants are: 1) Pennsylvania with 75 plants, 2) New York with 35 plants, and 3) Texas with 34 plants.  The state boasts so many plants for two general reasons – we do not have state meat inspection, only federal, and we have a myriad of small plants.

One of the major messages conveyed to workshop participants during various sessions were claims about their beef that they can and cannot make.  Acceptable terms include: 1) antibiotic-free, 2) raised without added hormones, and 3) Grass-fed.  Unacceptable claims for fresh beef, however, include: 1) Hormone-free, 2) Chemical-free, and 3) Cholesterol and/or fat-free.  Cattle producers also learned the requirement for each claim, such as “Antibiotic-free” means “never ever antibiotics” and that “Grass-fed” means “never ever any grain,” and what documentation is needed to support such claims.

Different cuts of beef were showcased, with a focus on some of the “newer,” value-adding chuck cuts.  The Denver steak, which looks remarkably like a strip steak, comes from the chuck roll. Many of the chuck cuts have historically been multiple-muscle roasts – and historically been sold at a rather low price.

With the advent of “muscle profiling” research (Beef Checkoff-supported program), the attributes of every muscle in the beef carcass were evaluated, including tenderness.  Some fancy knife work and a little patience results in the Denver steak, which if cut correctly, is more tender than the loin muscle of the same animal.

It was that profiling research (and some previous work by other innovators) that helped us develop the Flat Iron steakThe Flat Iron steak and the Top Blade steak are cuts from the same muscle – and the difference is in how they are cut.  Unfortunately, some people market Top Blade steak as Flat Iron steak, and consequently the eating experience may not be too pleasurable because the Top Blade features a seam of connective tissue running through the muscle.

Although most of our small USDA beef plants do not have USDA graders (which is different than inspection), participants were exposed to the USDA beef grading system and the factors used to determine yield and quality grades.  The concept of a “No-Roll” was also discussed, which is a valuable concept for a cattle producer to understand.  For example: a producer takes 10 steers to a packer, 8 grade USDA Choice, 1 grades USDA Prime, and one is labeled as a low-value “No-Roll”.  This could be because the carcass was overly mature, practically devoid of marbling, or was excessively fat (typically, USDA Yield Grade 4 or 5).

Participants also discussed the types of beef processors in Pennsylvania, which are 1) USDA-inspected and 2) Custom-exempt.  In order for an individual cut of beef to be sold, it must be slaughtered under USDA inspection (since Pennsylvania does not have state inspection).  Selling individual cuts from a Custom-exempt plant is illegal.  If using a Custom-exempt processor, the animal must be sold live (multiple buyers are permitted), and when it is slaughtered, it is no longer the property of the cattle producer.

The beef industry in Pennsylvania is richly diverse in the sizes and styles of its cattle producers and beef processors.  An interesting figure to think about: the national ratio of cow-calf producers to feedlot operations is 8:1.  In Pennsylvania, it is roughly 5:1.  This is because we have many small feedlots, with many feeding 15 or 20 head at a time, dotting the state.  This structure supports both our many small farms and small beef plants.  It also supports our larger packers.  Commonly, freezer beef is young beef, and less frequently are mature cows processed at small plants.  Those cattle are often processed at larger beef plants.  Together, the small farms, small plants, and large plants allow Pennsylvanians to greater access to beef raised and processed in their own state.

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