Feeder Grades 101

Grading Feeder Cattle Adds Value

Georgia cattleman and retired USDA cattle grader Terry Harris said grading feeder cattle is important for those who are purchasing. (DTN/Progressive Farmer file photo by Becky Mills)

You've heard the coveted phrase "No. 1 large-frame calves." What exactly does it mean, and why does the price usually go up for calves that fit the description?

"It describes their logical slaughter potential with a half an inch of backfat at a certain weight," said Terry Harris, retired USDA grader and Leesburg, Georgia, cattleman.

A large-frame steer finishes at over 1,250 lbs., a medium-frame steer finishes at 1,100 to 1,250 lbs. and a small-frame steer finishes under 1,100 lbs. Large-frame heifers should finish out over 1,150 lbs., medium frame at 1,000 to 1,150 lbs. and small under 1,000 lbs.

"Muscling is heaviest with a No. 1. The poorest is No. 4. A small-frame steer can be discounted a lot. He won't make a 600- to 900-lb. carcass, or if he's pushed, he'll be a yield grade 4 or 5," said Harris.

Age also comes into play. A 500-lb. calf that has a long tail and wide muzzle is likely older than he should be for his weight.

USDA grades do more than predict a calf's slaughter potential, though. Harris explained they came about because buyers and sellers in different parts of the country used varying descriptions to describe the same type of cattle. You've probably heard of a No. 1 Okie. You might not know this is a No. 1 calf on the thin side.

So, when does this grading take place? It depends. In 31 states, USDA graders sit ringside in a sales barn and assign a grade as the calf comes through the ring. The grader then sorts them on paper, or more accurately by computer, with similar calves selling in other auction barns across the state. That's so you can look at a weekly published report and track prices.


If you want to know how your calves grade, Harris said to simply walk up to the grader, introduce yourself, and he or she will be glad to give you a tutorial. Since the grader is assigning a grade while the calf is being auctioned off, it doesn't affect the price. But make no mistake, sharp-eyed buyers are mentally giving that calf a grade of their own and matching it with their orders.

If a sale barn sells truckload lots of feeder calves by phone and/or video and the calves never set foot in the ring, USDA graders rely on the seller or auction barn staff to let them know the price and their estimate of a grade or grades.

"We trust the person who is giving us the information, but we do reserve the right to drop in now and then and observe the cattle," Harris said.

On private treaty sales, once again, USDA graders rely on the information they're given.

In states with their own graded feeder calf program, like Virginia, calves can be graded by state graders and sorted by grades into larger groups before they go in the ring.

Now, if your feeder steers and heifers make that No. 1 large-frame category, great. If not, there are ways to get more of your calves in the top group. For starters, there is health. It is no accident that the word "thrifty" is one of the most-used words in official USDA feeder calf grading standards.

"If they are in good health, that will be rewarded," said Harris. "We look at their hair coat, thriftiness, how quickly an animal moves. If it's sick, it takes longer to reach slaughter potential and grade."

Butch Foster, field man for the Virginia Cattlemen's Association, (VCA) often accompanies state graders to the farm or auction barn.

"The main thing is a nose discharge, their ears are drooping, and their hair is rubbed off," Foster said. "That's a telltale sign that there is something missing nutrition wise."

Age is another factor. If a 500 lb. calf has a long tail, a large head and wide muzzle, more than likely it has been mismanaged, it is small for its age, and the grade will reflect that.

Harris and Foster agree that the best way to ensure the health of calves at sale time is to wean and precondition them for at least 45 days.

Harris said, "Some programs only require 45 or 60 days, but I'm a 90-day guy."

During that preconditioning period, calves recover from the stress of weaning, learn to eat out of a feed bunk and drink out of water trough. Most programs require the calves get at least two rounds of respiratory vaccinations, either both during preconditioning or one before weaning and one after, along with deworming.

"If they are preconditioned for health, that will add 3 to 5 cents a pound," said Harris.

Condition also counts, which is another plus for preconditioning. However, Foster said, "You can't starve a calf to death and then throw feed to it the last 60 days. You've got to keep the calf growing, 1 lb. to 1.5 lbs. a day." He added, "You don't want it too fat, either. You want it in medium flesh."


If you just flat out can't precondition your calves, University of Georgia food animal veterinarian Angie McDaniel said to keep your whole herd healthy.

"Make sure your cows are vaccinated properly and on a good plane of nutrition. If they are malnourished, they won't lactate properly, and their calves won't get the proper nutrition," McDaniel said.

After health, graders look at muscling and frame score. This is where your bull buying decisions pay, or not.

"Buy a good bull with muscling and growth," said Foster.

Harris gets more specific, especially on muscling. "When you're selecting bulls, look at their ribeye area (REA) expected progeny difference (EPD)."

EPDs are an indication of how much a bull's calves differ, on average, from that of other bulls' calves.

"With English breeds, try to get in the top 25% for marbling and REA. Other breeds, continentals, tend to be heavier muscled," Harris said.

This is where a grader's charge to look at logical slaughter potential comes into play, as well as a bull's ability to pass down muscling and REA.

"A good rule of thumb is, at harvest, 1 square inch of REA equals 100 lbs. of live weight," Harris said. "For example, a 1,450 lb. steer should have a REA of 14.5 square inches. That will generally keep you away from yield grade fours and fives."

If your calves show evidence of dairy blood, Harris said you want to emphasize the REA EPDs.

"Dairy conformation is discounted because the boning yield is lower. The price difference between No. 1 and No. 2 muscling is minimal to none, but calves with No. 3 muscling are heavily discounted."

When he is choosing bulls for his operation, Harris wants a high score on marbling, too, even though that doesn't enter into feeder calf grades. However, it is a main factor when carcasses are given a USDA carcass grade. Since Harris and his wife, Betty, sell both freezer beef and seedstock, they insist on top marbling scores.

"We work from the dinner plate back," Harris said.

If you sell your calves at weaning or shortly after, that logical slaughter potential may not seem important. Right now, when cattle numbers are at an all-time low and anything with four legs and hair commands a premium, it may not affect your price.

Think about it, though. This could be a prime time to get ahead and use some of those extra dollars to ramp up your vaccination program and buy the right bull. When lean times hit, you'll be dollars ahead.

For more information on USDA feeder grades, see: