By Paul Dykstra
Fed cattle prices were steady in the first half of February, averaging
$114 per hundredweight (cwt) in each of those two weeks. Live cattle futures contracts have been pricing higher this month despite choppy movement during the week of Feb. 8.
Several deliveries against the February contract have been tendered in recent days due to the weak basis. This has had a negative impact on the February contract as the market tries to force convergence with the spot cash value.
Extreme winter conditions and temperatures well below zero have been
widespread across the country impacting most of the major central cattle-feeding region. Feedlot weight gain will be stalled for a period of days in many cases as nutrient intake is channeled toward maintenance needs.
Some of the futures market rally can likely be attributed to the recent weather pattern, which had been forecast several days in advance. The prospect and reality of lighter carcass weights plus lost production efficiencies are bullish factors for futures prices in the short term.
The other side of the coin is the smaller fed cattle slaughter during the week of Feb. 8 and further processing disruptions the week of Feb. 15 due to weather impacts and rolling blackouts causing temporary plant shutdowns.
This doesn’t help with cattle throughput during a period when fed supplies are ample and need to stay current to keep weights down and clean up feedyard inventories of heavy cattle. This would apply downward market pressure.
Latest confirmed steer weights are still 19 pounds higher than last year, but are now poised to decline rapidly under recent weather developments. Analysis of feedlot placement data indicates carcass weights should move much lower as spring nears, taking on a more seasonal pattern.
The country is in a bit of a mess with all of the weather disruptions changing the normal movement of beef product and cattle. Focusing on daily beef prices in the spot market this week may not provide a good measure of demand. Even so, year-to-date boxed beef values are convincing enough with cutout prices poised well above a year ago.
The industry will zero in tighter on middle meats in the next segment as price signals for those cuts are aggressive for this time of the year. Aside from the chuck roll, most of the end meats trended lower last week. The few with an upward price trajectory are cheaper than a year ago and justifiably can see price appreciation.
Middle meats heat during typical slump
The early months of the year are often dull for middle meat demand, when
the trends dip or flatten for those primals. But, not this year.
By taking price per pound and the weight of the primal, the value of each of the middle meat items adds to the wholesale carcass value.
A look at rib, strip and tenderloin trends shows them up 121 percent, 129 percent and 108 percent, respectively, above last year’s values for the same timeframe. The market was still operating “normally” during the first part of 2020, so comparing them to an average of the three years prior tells a similar story.
We can’t lay our hands on all the reasons this pronounced spike is happening, but generally conclude it’s influenced by continued restaurant reopening across parts of the country and stimulus optimism giving buyers confidence in the market.
Wholesale prices are getting high and working unseasonably higher. The
important note back to cattle country is middle meats are in high demand, and the spreads are playing right in line with this. In the latest U.S. Department of Agriculture report, the Choice-Select spread was at $11.44, up from a $9.48 average the week of Feb. 8.
The Certified Angus Beef (CAB) brand grid premiums are following suit
to a lesser degree, but still above trend line for this mid-February timeframe.
It probably goes without saying, but this increase is not a response to
supply. In fact, it’s happening in spite of an abundance of high-grading cattle across the U.S.
I believe the industry is at an all-time high of combined Choice and Prime grading carcasses, hitting 85 percent of the fed cattle supply this past week.
Cold weather, grade expectations
Weather is always a popular topic this time of year, but this last week
probably marks the first event of 2021 which affects such a wide swath of the U.S. experiencing it in a similar way. Record cold temperatures have been noted from South Dakota down through southern Texas.
Typically, mud and adverse weather conditions result in depressed grade, but what about severe cold? Cattle start to use a greater portion of their energy for maintenance, so producers would expect average daily gain to fall off. However, the degree to which this will impact carcass quality is probably negligible.
History in our CAB data shows grade generally improves, rather than declines, during periods of extreme cold.
The spike in Choice and Prime quality grading starting off 2021 is
not a result of cold temperatures, but an indication of the compositional makeup of the cattle on feed. There are some big, long-fed cattle coming through the supply chain, evidenced by lingering heavy carcass weights.
Producers might rationally expect some decline from the current record-high quality grade observations, but history shows plunging temperatures won’t necessarily mean a dramatic instantaneous decline in carcass quality.
The record-high quality grade mix coupled with the unseasonally high premiums for quality are an unprecedented feature of the present market.
Paul Dykstra is the assistant director of supply management and analysis at CAB. He can be reached at email@example.com.