Do steers or heifers produce better beef?

Quality characteristics, tenderness and value of beef are similar from steers and heifers.

Cattle prices are at a record high and so are retail beef prices. Current prices for heifers and steers is nearly identical. For the week ending April 7, 2014, live heifers averaged $149.80 and steers averaged $149.70 per hundredweight nationally according to U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agriculture Marketing Service. Retail beef prices do not differentiate between steer and heifer carcasses. The average overall retail Choice beef price for Feb. 2014 was $5.58 per pound.

Very small differences are noted between beef from steers and heifers after looking at large populations of data. Michigan State University Extension summarized studies for carcass traits and instrumental tenderness that compared beef from heifers and steers. According to the most recent National Beef Quality Audit, heifer carcasses had slightly more marbling than steer carcasses, but USDA quality grade was not significantly different. 

Instrumental tenderness was similar in the ribeye muscle from steers and heifers after 14 days of aging according to a research project at Colorado State University. In the same project, if aging times were extended to 21 days, beef from heifers was more tender than beef from steers, but after 28 days of aging, there was no difference. In a comparison of ten studies reviewed by the National Beef Cattlemen’s Association, beef from heifers appeared to become tender more slowly than beef from steers. But overall differences in instrumental tenderness are negligible with proper aging times in place.

Instrumental tenderness, most often determined by Warner-Bratzler Shear Force, measures the force needed to shear, perpendicular to the muscle fibers, a half-inch diameter core of meat taken from a one-inch thick steak. An average shear force (measured in pounds or kilograms) from six to eight cores is calculated to measure tenderness from one steak. The most common muscle to conduct instrumental tenderness is the longissimus muscle which is the main muscle in a ribeye. 

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