Beef prices at record highs as cold weather hits cattle herds
The price of choice-grade U.S. beef at wholesale has set a new record as already tight supplies were further squeezed by harsh weather that reduced the number of cattle coming to market in parts of the country.
The wholesale price, or cutout, for choice beef on Thursday hit $212.05 per hundredweight (cwt), eclipsing the record of $211.37 last May, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Retail beef prices in November climbed to $5.41 per pound, topping the $5.36 October record, according to monthly data compiled by USDA that will be updated on Jan. 16.
"Tight beef supplies is the underlying principal factor," said University of Missouri livestock economist Ron Plain.
Packers hiked the price of beef it sells to grocers and restaurants after last week paying up to $138 per cwt for slaughter-ready cattle in the Plains—also a record high, he said.
The U.S. herd, at a 61-year low after years of drought, forced processors to spend more for supplies. Additionally, ice and snow-packed roads snarled transportation of cattle to packing plants.
Accompanying temperatures at historic lows slowed down cattle weight gains, making them less available to major meat processors such as Cargill and Tyson Foods.
"The weights have been coming down and we started placing fewer cattle in feedlots last summer, so eventually we had to tighten supplies up," said Steve Meyer, president of Iowa-based Paragon Economics.
Economists said record-high beef cutout values should come as no surprise given the scare supply situation that could keep retail beef prices at or near record highs through 2014.
Analysts and economists said recent changes in the way USDA calculates the wholesale price for specific cuts of beef likely helped drive up the overall cutout value.
"The real story is we're not going to have as much beef this year as we had last year," said Meyer.