In a Nov. 16 Certified Angus Beef (CAB) Insider, fed cattle prices were steady in the previous week with a $152.73 per hundredweight (cwt) average six-state steer price. The northern end of the feeding region sold some as high as $156 per cwt, but a volume at $153 per cwt. Very light cash trade volume in Kansas and Texas found an average near $150 per cwt.
Live cattle futures contracts have traded up and down in the past two weeks with the December contract gaining nearly two dollars per cwt from the beginning of the month through last week. With volatility in the markets, this increase has since been erased in the past four days with the contract closing on Nov. 15 at $151.27 per cwt. The February 2023 contract has declined around three dollars per cwt since the first of November.
In the same timeframe, corn futures worked to the cattle feeders’ advantage with a 40 cent drop from Nov. 1 through Nov. 14. Reports on Nov. 15 of Russian aggression in Ukraine spilling over into Poland sent corn prices higher as heightened tensions in the region once again generated volatility in grain prices.
Despite the weekly average data showing the CAB cutout $2.18 per cwt higher last week, the Choice boxed value has declined daily since Nov. 8 by seven cents per cwt. With Thanksgiving meal preparations at the focus of many retailers, the beef spot market demand tends to decline in the week prior to the holiday. Emphasis on “spot market” is important since beef purchasing for late fourth quarter needs has been well underway.
Ahead of Thanksgiving, ribeyes and tenderloins are not giving up any ground. These two cuts, in each of the quality grades – including the CAB brand – are reflecting the typical seasonal demand climb.
CAB reported record-high tenderloin prices two weeks ago and the trend has only strengthened in the meantime. As of Nov. 15, heavy Choice tenderloin price was $15.24 per pound, wholesale, versus $13.73 per pound a year ago. Last week, the heavy CAB tenderloin price was $1.20 per pound premium to Choice.
Across the rest of the carcass items, prices are mixed with notably weaker prices on thin meats and round subprimal cuts. Chuck rolls have been difficult for buyers to source in the past few weeks and are consequently 25 percent pricier at wholesale than a year ago.
Tight cattle supplies and increasing carcass weights
The current cattle markets can provide a history lesson for those new to the scene. With the previous week’s $152 per cwt fed cattle average, feedyards experienced the highest price since June 2015.
To give a quick recap of this era: Record-high prices, fueled by a supply chain starved for cattle numbers, came to an abrupt end. The November 2014 record steer price of $171 per cwt eroded rapidly and bottomed out nine months later in September 2015.
Following the 31 percent drop to $117 per cwt, the market stabilized and turned higher. This signaled the end of tight cattle supplies, caused by drought liquidation and beef cattle producers were able to restock the nation’s cowherd.
At the market high in November 2014, weekly steer/heifer slaughter head counts were near 445,000 head, just 13 percent smaller than the average in the most recent four-week period. At the 2014 market high, carcass weights averaged 874 pounds whereas most recent carcass weights in 2022 have been 18 pounds heavier at 892 pounds. The resulting estimated carcass tonnage is 15 percent larger in recent weeks than in November 2014.
It’s interesting to note while fed cattle prices declined precipitously in 2015, weekly slaughter head counts continued to trend lower in 2015 as well. As a matter of fact, fed slaughter was 4.8 percent smaller in 2015 than the prior year, even as price declined at three times this pace.
The feedlot sector’s response to tight cattle supplies in late 2015 was to send carcass weights to new record highs. During that October, steer carcasses averaged 930 pounds, 24 pounds heavier than the fall 2014 high and 51 pounds heavier than this period in 2013. It was a conscious effort by packers and feeders to capture more pounds from fewer head.
As noted, the recent weekly slaughter is much more robust than in 2015 and cattle supplies are at least adequate for the short term. Fed cattle numbers will certainly tighten as producers move into 2023 due to the shrinking cowherd and a 2022 calf crop at least one percent smaller than last year, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture’s July report.
The latest steer carcass weight average of 928 pounds is just two pounds lighter than the 2015 fall heaviest, a record at the time, seemed an excessive departure under extreme circumstances.
As producers stare down the road at a scenario similar to what they experienced a decade ago, it’s difficult to imagine producers will be able to capitalize on more pounds per head in the fed cattle sector.
Carcass weights are starting the upcoming supply dip at an already-elevated level. The beef industry has added an average of five pounds of carcass weight annually across a very long timespan. Another two-year, 50-pound increase response to tight head counts is a bit unimaginable today.
However, odds are great for carcass weights to press upward, within normal seasonal patterns for many months to come.
Paul Dykstra is the assistant director of supply management and analysis at CAB. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.