Editorial: Cattle numbers track only half the story

Editorial: Cattle numbers track only half the story

Beef prices remain at record highs, in part, because the U.S. has the smallest combined beef and dairy herd since 1951. While it’s true there were only 87.7 million head of cattle on inventory this past January, lost in the headlines has been the fact that total U.S. beef production has been stable. That seldom discussed market fact remains possible because hanging carcass weights have improved by 250 pounds per animal over the past 60 years.

There are a number of factors that have led to a nearly 50 percent gain in dressed beef yields since 1951. Better nutrition, improved genetics, enhanced animal care along with a dash of scientific breakthrough in the form of growth enhancers have drastically improved the efficiency of meat production. As a result, market-ready cattle now yield 796 pounds compared to 544 pounds just six decades ago. Perhaps more impressive is that 20 percent of that 250-pound improvement happened during the past decade, as shown in the graph.

Beef carcass weights grew by 250 pounds

These profound developments make it rather shortsighted for industry analysts to simply quote cattle numbers when discussing beef markets. After all, it’s total pounds of beef that matters most because consumers buy hamburgers and steaks, not cattle.

Unfortunately, the cattle industry has shown little interest in changing its ways. That stubbornness also has cost the beef checkoff dearly. While dairy promotion dollars continue to grow because collections are based on pounds of milk, not total head of dairy cows, the beef checkoff’s budgets have approached record lows as reduced cattle numbers and inflation constantly chip away at promotion budgets.

While the collective appetite to reopen the beef checkoff funding mechanism is low, our entire industry would be far better served by focusing on pounds rather than head. By benchmarking the final product, everyone has a clearer snapshot of the true market dynamics from the farm’s gate to the consumer’s plate.

This editorial appears on page 487 of the August 10, 2014 issue of Hoard's Dairyman.