The shoulder of a pork carcass (Figure 1: rough shoulder) is processed into two wholesale cuts: the butt, commonly called the Boston butt or shoulder butt, and the picnic, also known as the picnic shoulder or arm shoulder.

The Boston butt is obtained from the upper portion of the whole shoulder (Figure 2) and the picnic shoulder is obtained from the lower portion (Figure 3). The primary retail cuts obtained from the Boston butt and the picnic shoulder are blade and arm/picnic roasts (bone-in or boneless) and blade and arm steaks.

Meat quality is a concern for all pork wholesale cuts. However, the quality of wholesale or retail shoulder cuts traditionally has not been evaluated, nor is it a large concern, because these cuts are frequently further processed into sausage, bratwursts, luncheon meats and so forth. The quality of the meat cuts used in these types of products is more easily manipulated or masked by the further processing.

The wholesale Boston butt and picnic shoulder weights were obtained from three National Pork Board projects (See “Selling Pork, Not Pigs,” page 6). Knife separable fat, bone and other soft tissue weight were obtained for each of the wholesale shoulder cuts.

Backfat and loin muscle area for the 250- and 290-lb. hogs used as examples are shown in Table 1. This reference indicates the size of the shoulder primals that are expected from a 250- or a 290-lb. hog with the representative backfat and loin muscle area.

Setting Shoulder Values

To value the shoulder primals, the prices of each wholesale cut and trimmings and the 52-week average for 2001 were obtained from the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service. The wholesale prices reported are for bone-in products that have been trimmed to ¼ in. of external fat. Prices reported for wholesale cuts of pork are more consistently reported than prices for various retail cuts. Because all processors do not fabricate the carcass into exactly the same retail cuts, wholesale prices were chosen as the best way to value the pork carcasses.

The weights and values of the shoulder primals differed as the size of the hog increased (Table 1). The wholesale Boston butt and picnic shoulder weights from the 250-lb. hog were 8.94 and 9.81 lb., respectively. The weights of the Boston butt and picnic shoulders were multiplied by the 2001 average wholesale prices that were $0.90/lb. and $0.45/lb., respectively.

The 250-lb. hog provided a single Boston butt value of $8.05 and single picnic shoulder value of $4.41. The same two cuts from the 290-lb. hog weighed 10.44 and 11.26 lb. and had values of $9.40 and $5.07, respectively.

The amount of fat trimmed from the shoulder primals totaled 1.80 lb. for the 250-pounder and 2.54 lb. for the 290-pounder. Closer examination showed that the fat obtained from the picnic shoulder was 0.54 lb. for the 250-lb. hog and 0.73 lb. for the 290-lb. hog, while the fat trimmed from the Boston butt was 1.26 lb. and 1.81 lb. for the respective weights.

Fat, although less valuable than lean meat, does have value as edible fat sold in the wholesale market. This fat is added to products like sausage, hot dogs and other edible goods.

The fat from the shoulder of the 250-lb. hog had a value of $0.41 ($0.12 from the picnic, $0.29 from the Boston butt), while the shoulder fat from the 290-lb. hog had a value of $0.58 ($0.17 from the picnic shoulder and $0.41 from the Boston butt).

In addition to the wholesale cuts and fat, the weights of shoulder trimmings from the 250- and 290-lb. animals were 1.40 and 2.06 lb., respectively. The 2001 USDA reported average wholesale price for 42% trim was $0.27/lb. Hence, the values of trimmings were $0.39 from the 250-lb. hog and $0.56 from the 290-lb. hog.

Jowl Values

The jowl, the small piece of meat pictured beside the rough shoulder in Figure 1, is also considered a portion of the shoulder and has some value. (Figure 4 shows it separately.)

Table 1. Wholesale Shoulder Cuts, Byproducts and Value from an Example 250 and 290-lb. Market Hog
Item 250-lb.
Market Hog
290-lb.
Market Hog
Carcass Weight, lb. 183.9 216.1
Yield, % 73.6 74.5
Backfat, in. 0.95 1.08
Loin Muscle Area, sq. in. 6.05 6.76
Picnic Shoulder Weight, lb. 9.81 11.26
Picnic Shoulder Price, $/lb. 0.45 0.45
Picnic Shoulder Value, $ 4.41 5.07
Picnic Fat, lb. 0.54 0.73
Fat Price, $/lb. 0.23 0.23
Picnic Shoulder Fat Value, $ 0.12 0.17
Total Picnic Shoulder Value, $ 4.53 5.24
Boston Butt Weight, lbs. 8.94 10.44
Boston Butt Price, $/lb. 0.90 0.90
Boston Butt Value, $ 8.05 9.40
Boston Butt Fat, lb. 1.26 1.81
Fat Value, $/lb. 0.23 0.23
Boston Butt Fat Value, $ 0.29 0.41
Boston Butt Value, $ 8.34 9.81
Shoulder Trim, lb. 1.40 2.06
Shoulder Trim Value, $/lb. 0.27 0.27
Shoulder Trim Value, $ 0.39 0.56
Jowl Weight, lbs.a 1.51 1.89
Jowl Price, $/lb. 0.27 0.27
Jowl Value, $ 0.41 0.51
Total Shoulder Value, $ 13.67 16.12
Total Carcass Shoulder Value, $ 27.34 32.24
aJowl skin weight is included in byproducts and not in this weight.


In this evaluation, the jowl was skinned; therefore, the portion of the jowl valued with the shoulder only included the soft tissue. The skin from the jowl is valued in the byproducts section (See “Establishing Carcass Byproduct Values,” page 42).

The skinned jowl weights from the 250-lb. and 290-lb. hogs were 1.51 and 1.89 lb., respectively. Since the jowl was skinned, this product was classified as trim.

The 2001 USDA average wholesale jowl price was $0.27/lb. The values of a single jowl (without skin) from the 250-lb. and 290-lb. hogs were $0.41 and $0.51, respectively.

The jowl can be processed in a variety of ways. One processor harvests a small portion (2 ½ -3 sq. in.) of jowl marketed as a “Korean” jowl. This highly marbled piece of meat is considered a delicacy in some markets.

Total Shoulder Value

The total values of a single pork shoulder (wholesale cut, fat and trimmings) were $13.67 and $16.12 for the 250-lb. and 290-lb. hogs, respectively. These values, of course, were doubled to $27.34 and $32.24 to determine total carcass pork shoulder value from the respective hogs.

The total weights of the wholesale shoulder cuts (Boston butt and picnic shoulder) represented 20.4% and 20.1% of total carcass weight from the 250-lb. and 290-lb. hogs, respectively. Shoulder primals provide 19.6% of the value of the 250-lb hog and 19.8% of the value of the 290-lb. hog.

Seasonal Fluctuations

The picnic shoulder and Boston butt markets are similar to other pork wholesale cuts in that seasonal and/or monthly price variation exists. Monthly averages were calculated from USDA Market News Service price information (Figure 5).

Generally, the peak price for picnic shoulders and Boston butts occurs in May and June, while the lowest prices occur in the winter months of November to January. Monthly Boston butt price variation follows base carcass price very closely.

The peak price months correspond to times when consumers begin more outdoor activities. Consumers fire up the grill and the demand for further processed products like hot dogs and bratwursts increases. Additionally, barbecued pork has a rich tradition in the U.S., particularly in the south. The Boston butt and picnic shoulder are generally favored in the barbecue trade to make “pulled pork.” Further processed and barbecued pork contributes to the picnic and Boston butt summer demand peak.

Seasonal peaks present both a challenge and an opportunity to pork processors. Since a pork carcass can yield only two picnic shoulders and two Boston butts, a system must be in place to help processors avoid selling their products during demand and price slumps. This is largely accomplished through cold storage during the months when demand is low and pulling from cold storage stocks when demand increases. Processors can weigh the cost of storage against the current market price to determine how many Boston butts and picnic shoulders to store and how many to sell on the open market.