Small cattle populations spike beef prices - KWWL - Eastern Iowa Breaking News, Weather, Closings

Small cattle populations spike beef prices

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Beef prices are reaching historic highs, and cattle counts remain low, so some are left asking, 'where's the beef?'

Officials at the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) say there currently 87 million heads of cattle in the country, and while that may seem like a lot, it's actually the smallest inventory since 1951.

It's simple supply and demand: fewer cattle means beef costs more.

"The consumers are probably feeling it already," said Denise Schwab, a Northeast Iowa Beef Specialist for the Iowa State Extension office in Vinton. "Obviously, our meat prices are higher than they have been."

Cattle inventory spiked in the late 1990's, according to the USDA figures, at about 102 million heads. It's been downhill since. Now, there are only about 87 million animals on-hand, and that's down two million from January 2013.

Schwab said the three years of drought in the Southwestern states contributed to the problem. She also cited cold temps, which make weight gain more difficult for animals, and means you could pay more at the meat counter.

Don Landau opened his first restaurant in the Cedar Valley in 1964. Now, he owns the Highway 63 Diner in Waterloo.

"So we're very aware of the rising cost," he said. "What we haven't done is we haven't kept up with it. We haven't increased our prices like we should have."

Burgers, steaks -- the diner serves a lot of beef, and Landau said he'll eat the increased food cost, at least for now.

"And we won't go to a lesser quality product just because prices have gone up," Landau said. "We stay with our best quality product, but we do increase our prices when we're forced to."

Experts said it can take years to replenish cattle populations, so this could be an issue for years to come.

Nationwide populations are down two percent, but the deficit is actually higher in Iowa -- data shows we're down four percent.

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