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Flat Iron Steaks were just the beginning

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

Casper — In 2007 the American food service industry purchased 92 million pounds of flat iron steaks, 42 million pounds of petite tender steaks and 37 million pounds of ranch cut steaks.
    Just over a decade ago, meat scientist Chris Calkens with the University of Nebraska said that would have been “169 million pounds of steak that was being ground and sold as hamburger.” Today the cuts are competing with the more traditional steaks.
    Calkins told ranchers attending the early December Range Beef Cow Symposium in Casper that the research resulting in the new cuts was launched during the late 1990s tailspin in cattle prices.
    Cattle-Fax data at the time showed that while middle meat value had increased by three to four percent, the value of the chuck and the round had dropped by 25 percent. “They weigh the most and had the greatest opportunity for increased value,” said Calkins. The researchers took what was worth around a $1.50 a pound as hamburger and turned it into quality steak items. For consumers at the meat counter Calkins said, “It’s a chance to trade down instead of out of beef.”
    Calkins explained, “We’ve got the shoulder or the chuck up here on one end, that’s about 30 percent. The round on the other end is 23 percent. Just 17 percent is found in the ribs, the loins and the sirloin area of that carcass.” The value, however, has relied too strongly on the smallest source of meat.
    “The chuck was a loss for producers in the early 90s,” he explained. In 2000 and 2001 information about the new cuts earned widespread industry attention. The price of meat from the chuck surpassed live cattle prices bringing new value to the beef industry. Cattle-Fax, said Calkins, estimates the new cuts added between $50 and $70 to the value of a carcass.
    Calkins and his teammates, whose work is funded by the Beef Checkoff, have now turned their attention to the chuck roll. It’s a 20-25 pound piece of meat from the shoulder. Cutting it as a chuck roast, said Calkins, leaves value on the table. Once again, the research team hopes to turn low value cuts into items that bring revenue growth to the beef industry.
    The chuck roll is now the source of Boneless Country Style Ribs, America’s Beef Roast, the Sierra Steak and the Denver Steak. The Denver Steak ranks fourth when the muscles within a carcass are ranked according to tenderness. Calkins said the nation’s beef leaders are just starting to get the word out about the new cuts. While they may not be available in retail stores yet, he said the word is beginning to circulate.
    “When I talk to retailers about this they see dollar signs,” said Calkins. He called the research a win-win-win where consumers get a better product, retailers see a chance to add value and increased beef demand bolsters cattle prices.
    “What we end up with is five different cuts out of that chuck roll,” said Calkins. “We used to just get the chuck eye steak and everything else went into hunk and chunk.”
    Meeting the needs of modern American consumers Calkins said, “We’re making things simpler for the consumers. They don’t have the knowledge to buy chuck steaks and cut it. Instead the industry does it for them. We provide products that are quick and easy to serve and are good eating experiences.”
    In addition to the research on new cuts, Calkins said a separate group of researchers is exploring modifications to the more traditional cuts. As carcass weights have increased so have the challenges of keeping cuts like ribeyes the right size and thickness to meet the American consumer’s desires.
    As one speaker at the Range Beef Cow Symposium put it, “Steaks were likely invented the day after fire was discovered.” Despite the historic nature of the industry, growth and opportunities appear to remain within reach.
    Information, including charts detailing how the cuts are made, can be found online at Jennifer Womack is a staff writer for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at

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