Nation & World

Moneyball for cattle: Data usage is creating an American steak renaissance

Bloomberg

An employee walks with an Angus bull following an auction at Woodhill Farms in Viroqua, Wis., in April.
Bloomberg An employee walks with an Angus bull following an auction at Woodhill Farms in Viroqua, Wis., in April.
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Reliance is a Black Angus bull with a long, fluid stride. He has a quiet confidence when he walks.

It’s one of the qualities that led cattlemen to bid up the prized animal to $150,000 during a recent bull sale at Woodhill Farms in Viroqua, Wisc.

But there’s more to Reliance than his poise. He comes with a printout of genomic assessments and a family tree going back generations.

The numbers say he’s a winner, and these days, the numbers are right. He’s rated in the top 3 percent of all Angus bulls for rib-eye quality, and the top 5 percent for marbling-the white, fatty flecks that make beef more flavorful and tender, according to Brian McCulloh, who bred the “big-money bull.”

Reliance’s descendants are almost guaranteed to turn into delectable Porterhouses, which their owners can charge more money for accordingly.

Today, cattlemen can pick out superior calves better than they ever have, as DNA testing gets cheaper and projections get more accurate.

That’s transforming the beef industry, with cattle that make high-end beef becoming the vast majority of U.S. herds in recent years.

Lower-quality beef is forecast to all but vanish from the U.S. market, while the highest-quality, once a rarity, is common enough that retailers such as Costco Wholesale stock it.

“It’s like Moneyball for cattle,” Mark McCully, vice president of production for Certified Angus Beef, said of the advanced statistics movement and referring to the title of Michael Lewis’ 2003 book on the Oakland A’s baseball team. “Back in the day, the eye of the stockman was all we had, and now we have high-powered analytical tools and can make progress so much faster.”

One breed is dominant when it comes to the quantitative genetics game — the hornless, Black Angus, which has been promoted as having better beef than others.

When new calves are born, they’re registered with the American Angus Association, and their pedigrees are confirmed with DNA testing, which costs about $37 a test compared with $139 in 2011.

A host of measurements are taken and compared against databases that can include millions of animals. So much data has been collected at this point that the statistical modeling has become startlingly accurate, said Dan Moser, president of the not-for-profit Angus Genetics. It’s like compound interest.

Last year, 82 percent of the U.S. herd was comprised of the two highest quality beef categories-USDA prime and choice, McCully said. Just five years ago, only 70 percent of the herd qualified.

Prime, considered the most desirable of meats, was for decades just a percent or two of the herd. Now it’s around 10 percent.

The profusion of marbled meat and a strong economy are helping drive a beef renaissance, said Shane Miller, senior vice president of beef enterprise at Tyson Food.

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American consumers, now accustomed to rib-eyes over lesser cuts, will eat 57.7 pounds of beef per capita this year, the highest in almost a decade, according to government data.

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