Bulletin #1072, Understanding Beef Yields

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By Colt W. Knight, Ph.D., Assistant Extension Professor and State Livestock Specialist, University of Maine Cooperative Extension.

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How much meat can you expect from a beef animal? The answer to this question depends on many variables including; breed, age, body condition score, health, sex, and diet. To begin, let’s discuss some basic definitions.

mixed beef cattle on pasture

Live weight – weight of the animal on the hoof

Shrink – weight animals loose in transportation

Dressing percentage = hot carcass weight ÷ live weight

Hot carcass weight – freshly slaughtered carcass, often referred to as hanging weight

Cold carcass weight – carcass after cooling

Cooler shrink – weight lost to evaporation as the carcass cools and ages

Understanding Shrink

Cattle will lose live weight in transportation due to the excretion of manure, urine, and sweat, but they also lose weight in their bodily tissues because of loss of fluid in cells due to dehydration. Weight lost to urine and manure excretion is quickly replaced if animals begin to eat and drink normally. Tissue weight loss is much more difficult to replenish, and care should be taken not to stress animals and make sure they have access to fresh clean drinking water. In general, we expect feeder cattle to shrink 2-3% during transportation, and finished cattle to shrink at a rate of 3-4%. If you simply remove cattle from feed and water overnight(12 hours) you can expect pasture-raised cattle to shrink 4% and grain-fed cattle to shrink between 2.5 and 3%. Large cattle buyers/transportation companies will allow for this shrinkage and take 2-3% off the live weight of animals at the farm/ranch. This is commonly referred to as pencil shrink.  If you would like to learn more about cattle shrinkage, I encourage you to review this article in Drovers.

As soon as the animal has been processed, the carcass will begin to lose weight due to evaporation, a process commonly called cooler shrink. Large commercial processing facilities utilize cold water sprayers to reduce cooler shrink to < 1%, but average facilities with good airflow generally expect a 3-5% loss due to cooler shrink.Several factors contribute to cooler shrink. First, how long is the carcass allowed to hang to age. If sides are aged for extended periods of time, they will lose more moisture through evaporation. The second factor contributing to cooler shrink is how much air flows through the room. A large empty room will have a greater airflow than a small room, or a room packed tightly. Some processors will mist cold water on sides to help prevent this evaporative loss. The third factor to consider is how much external fat does the animal have. Animals with average or excessive external fat will shrink less because the fat acts as a barrier. However, animals with excessive external fat will be trimmed and ultimately the result is a lower meat yield. To learn more about cooler shrink, there is a great article in Drovers.

Understanding Dressing Percentage

The national average live weight for feeder cattle ready for processing is about 1350 lbs. This will vary by breed, sex, diet, and body condition. Grain-fed cattle typically reach slaughter weight between 12 to 18 months old, and their dressing percentage normally range from 58 to 64%. Commercial feedlots generally expect a 63.5% average. Grass-fed cattle grow slower and can take 22-30+ months to reach slaughter weight. We would also expect them to dress 5% lower than grain-fed cattle. A typical dressing percentage range for properly conditioned grass-fed cattle is 53-58%. Mature cull cows will dress out between 48 to 51%, but that can be improved to 53-55% by incorporating a 60-day conditioning period. Cull dairy cattle will dress 3% lower than beef cattle due to increased bone structure and lower muscling. Dairy animals raised for beef often dress between 55-60%.

Example – 1200 lbs grass-fed beef steer

1200 lbs grass-fed steer with 3% shrink

1200lbs  x 0.03 = 36 lbs

1200lbs – 36lbs = 1164 lbs

1164 lbs live weight x about 57% dressing weight = 664 lbs hot carcass weight or hanging weight

1164 x 0.57 = 664

We can reasonable expect 3-5% cooler shrink

664 x 0.04 = 27

664lbs – 27lbs  = 637 lbs

That leaves a 637 lbs cold carcass weight

Bones generally make up 15-20% of carcass weight

637 x 0.175 = 112

637 lbs – 112 lbs = 526 lbs of boneless cuts

*Carcasses with excessive external fat (> ¼”) that needs to be trimmed away will yield even less

Aging Beef

Aging beef carcasses by letting the sides hang in the cooler before cutting increases tenderness. Ideally, beef sides should be aged from 14-21 days. However, the longer the beef hangs, the more weight it will lose to dehydration. In addition, the longer the sides hang, external surfaces may need to be trimmed further to remove hard and discolored sections and therefore lowering the meat yield. Leaner carcasses with less than 3/8” external fat dehydrate quicker and require more dehydrated/discolored surface to be removed.

Other Factors to Consider

Overly fat beef animals contain more fat, so more fat will be trimmed and discarded, lowering the yield.

Bruising, abscesses and other abnormalities due to mishandling, injection-site lesions, and injuries have to be removed from carcasses, reducing yield.


Rentfrow, Gregg. How Much Meat to Expect from a Carcass. University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension bulletine ASC-179.

Drovers. Carcass Dressing Percentage and Cooler Shrink. May 10, 2011.

Drovers. Review: Transportation  Shrink in Beef Cattle. Sept. 10, 2014.

Information in this publication is provided purely for educational purposes. No responsibility is assumed for any problems associated with the use of products or services mentioned. No endorsement of products or companies is intended, nor is criticism of unnamed products or companies implied.

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