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Dan Loy, Iowa Beef Center director's monthly column featured in Cattleman Magazine. Archives

Dan Loy in The Cattleman Magazine


April 2020

Beef Carcass Weights—Are we there yet?

Dressed beef weights have been steadily increasing in the U.S. since the 1960s. This trend is steady and consistent. The chart below shows the annual averaged steer federally inspected dressed weight since 1961. I added the trend line which suggests that on average over this time period 4.3 pounds of carcass weight is added each year.

Recent articles by both Lee Schulz of Iowa State and Darrell Peel of Oklahoma State have discussed the economic implications of this trend. This trend also contributes to the sustainability story that we are producing more beef with far fewer cows than in the past. This trend always generates questions and discussion in the beef industry. As early as the 1980s there were concerns about optimum ribeye sizes and cattle becoming "too big for the box" and in the 1990s the war on fat encouraged cattle to be marketed leaner and at lighter weights. Through all of this carcass weights continued to increase. Today there is concern about cows becoming too big for their environment and several research programs are actively evaluating this question.

F.I. Steer Dressed Weights graphic

So why does this trend in increased weights seem to continue? One obvious reason is genetic trends for growth in all of the major breeds. Cattle grow faster and tend to be larger than in the past. Technologies we use now to improve growth, efficiency and size of cattle that were not available in the 1960s. Cattle are fed longer and to higher yield grades. According to the 2016 National Beef Quality Audit the average percentage of yield grade 4s and 5s was 15%-16%. The target goal is 5% in that document. In the past very poor feed conversions accompanied cattle that were fed beyond conventional market dates. Today’s cattle tend to maintain performance and feed efficacy at heavier weights. Demand for the improved quality grades has also apparently moderated discounts from packers for yield grade 4s and 5s as well as heavy carcasses. Where at one time carcass weight discounts started at 850 pounds, today it is 1000 or 1050 pounds.

Like children in the back seat of the station wagon, many of us are asking, "Are we there yet?" Based on the steady trendline in the chart, the average steer carcass weight for 2020 should average around 879 pounds. Assuming a standard 63% dressing percentage, that equates to a live weight of 1395 pounds. Based on the fact that closeouts summarized by Garland Dahlke from the fall of 2019 averaged 1543, it appears that this trend is still going strong. A consultant from eastern Canada reported in March that average slaughter weights in his region were 1500-1900 pounds. While it is unlikely that we will reach average weights of those levels, at the current trend we will be there in 44 years. Economics related to cost of production and market signals will be the factors that moderate this trend.

The IBC at Iowa State University serves as the university’s extension program to cattle producers. Our center comprises a team of faculty and staff from the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, the College of Veterinary Medicine and Iowa State University Extension and Outreach. We work together to develop and deliver the latest in research-based information to improve the profitability and vitality of Iowa’s beef industry. If you’d like to be notified of updates on progress of research projects or programs that might be coming to your area, please subscribe to our “Growing Beef” newsletter by following the link on our website, If you have a question, use our “Ask our Experts” link. Also, feel free to call us at 515-294-BEEF or email us at You can follow @iowabeefcenter on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Instagram. And be sure and listen to our newest venture - the Iowa Beef Center Podcast!