Total federally inspected beef production was 12.1 billion pounds in the first 24 weeks of 2019, up just 0.7 percent from the same period last year. That is an average production of 502.4 million pounds per week — an amazing number if you think about it! Given that there is little storage of beef beyond pipeline supplies, it means that roughly 500 million pounds of a wide range of beef products are moving through a vast array of retail grocery, restaurant, food service and export markets every week. It is an enormous and complex set of markets.
Total cattle slaughter is up 1.3 percent year over year in the 24 weeks ended in mid-June. Year-to-date steer slaughter is down 2.2 percent while heifer slaughter is up 7.9 percent compared to one year ago. Total yearling (steer and heifer) slaughter is up 1.3 percent year over year for the year to date. The most recent weekly steer carcass weights were 849 pounds, 7 pounds less than the same date last year. Steer carcass weights have averaged 4.9 pounds less for the year to date compared to one year earlier. Current heifer carcass weights are 791 pounds, down 4 pounds year over year and have averaged 5.8 pounds less than the first 24 weeks last year.
Yearling carcass weights have likely reached the seasonal low. Steer carcass weights reached a low of 842 pounds in weeks 21 and 22 this year compared to low of 846 pounds in week 20 of 2018. Heifers have likely bottomed at 779 pounds in week 22 this year compared to a seasonal low of 782 pounds in week 20 last year. Steer and heifer carcass weights typically increase from the recent low to a seasonal peak in the fourth quarter of the year. In 2018, steer carcass weights peaked in November with a weight of 902 pounds in week 47. Heifer carcass weights peaked in weeks 45 and 48 at 838 pounds last year.
With feed costs destined to be somewhat higher in the second half of the year, feedlots will have some incentive to trim back days on feed suggesting lighter finished and, thus, carcass weights. However, feedlots do this largely by placing heavier feeder cattle, which need fewer days to finish. Heavier placement weights imply heavier finish weights. Feedlot data shows that every one pound increase in placement weight results in about one-half pound increase in finished weight. Thus, the impact of higher feed prices on carcass weights is unclear but is unlikely to have a major impact.
Assuming carcass weights remain at or below last year’s levels for the remainder of the year, beef production is expected to total just over 1 percent higher year over year for 2019. As long as beef demand does not weaken appreciably in the reminder of the year, fed cattle prices are expected to average about equal to 2018 levels for an annual average. Fed prices are expected to be slightly lower year over year in the third quarter before strengthening in the fourth quarter. Feeder prices are generally expected to average 3 to 5 percent below 2018 levels for the remainder of the year and for an annual average.
(Derrell S. Peel is a livestock marketing specialist for Oklahoma State University.)