Cattle prices below five-year average, herd at eight-year high

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Texas cattle producers are seeing fewer dollars in their pockets as prices remain low, while the Texas beef herd has hit an eight-year high of 4.65 million.

Beef cattle and calves are the state’s top agricultural commodity and generate sales of more than $10 billion annually in Texas.

Prices for Texas feeder steers averaged $145 per hundredweight, depending on weight and quality, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

That price is about $5 per hundredweight lower than the same time last year and about $33 per hundredweight lower than the fiveyear average.

Prices dipped even further in mid-May and mid-August this year.

Reasons for price decline

David Anderson, Ph.D., Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service economist, College Station, said multiple factors have caused prices to decline over the last few years, while others have caused prices to fluctuate this year.

A fire at a meat packing plant in Kansas in mid-August is one factor that contributed to lower cattle prices over the past month.

The plant handled 6% of the nation’s fed cattle capacity.

The fire occurred at a time when many producers take fall calves to market adding to the bottleneck and oversupply of beef cattle headed to processing, he said.

“We did see an impact on fed-cattle prices and even calf prices,” he said. “That trickles down into wholesale beef prices. I don’t like to use the word panic, but there was some concern about what the loss of that plant would mean, and the market reacted. In my opinion, it overreacted.”

The plant is expected to reopen in early 2020.

Drought is another factor that contributed to prices trending downward, Anderson said. Producers were cutting herds earlier and thinner than usual, and some were shipping calves sooner.

Anderson said establishment of wheat pastures could create demand for stockers. But cattle prices likely won’t rise to levels experienced in 2014-2015 because the Texas and national cattle herds have recovered since the last major drought.

“We have peaked out when it comes to the U.S. herd, so the price incentive to grow it further isn’t there,” he said. “After the drought of 2011, growth of the herd was a reaction to high prices, but eventually growth lends to lower prices and contraction.”

Steady demand

There is good demand for beef, and feed prices are favorable, Anderson said.

Exports continue to be good, but the strength of the dollar has made U.S. beef less competitive compared to other beef-producing nations like Brazil and Australia.

The ongoing trade war with China has had little effect on beef, but Anderson said exports to that nation have been growing.

Consumer niche markets in the U.S. such as plantbased “alternative proteins” have not made a measurable impact on the demand for beef, Anderson said. Plantbased alternatives have been around for years, and while they provide options for consumers, they make up a very small percentage of the market.

“There is a growing demand for beef and other proteins, whether we’re talking domestic or export markets,” he said. “I think if a producer’s calves are in good shape, and they have good grass and hay stocks, they might hang on to them to see if they catch an uptick in prices. But the days of $230-$300 per hundredweight are over because the herd has been replenished.”