Record high beef prices due to nationwide cattle shortage - KWWL - Eastern Iowa Breaking News, Weather, Closings

Record high beef prices due to nationwide cattle shortage

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Beef cattle are displayed Tuesday morning at the Manchester Livestock Auction Beef cattle are displayed Tuesday morning at the Manchester Livestock Auction
MANCHESTER (KWWL) - Americans are paying record high prices for beef right now due to a national cattle shortage, and this winter's harsh weather hasn't helped the situation for consumers.

Data from the US Department of Agriculture show the price of beef is at an all-time high. The most recent numbers - from February - show a pound of regular ground beef costs, on average, $3.56, and that goes up to $5.19 per pound for lean ground beef.

The overall average retail value of all fresh beef was $5.28 in February. Compare that to Feb. 2013, when it was $4.91 per pound, or Feb. 2012, when it was $4.63. A decade ago, in Feb. 2004, the average retail value of all fresh beef was $3.60 per pound. (In 1970, the farthest back the USDA data go, it was just 23 cents.)

About a dozen beef cattle buyers gathered at the Manchester Livestock Auction Tuesday morning to bid on cattle.

Joe Goergen was among them. He lives in Cedar Rapids and buys beef cattle for a slaughterhouse in Omaha, Neb.

Because the price of corn has gone down from its record high a few years ago, Goergen said, some farmers are feeding their livestock a little bit longer before selling them at auction.

While the high price of beef is good for beef cattle producers, it's not good for folks at the grocery store. Goergen said the cost is high because the number of cattle, nationwide, is low.

"The inventories are way down because of the drought," Goergen said. "They liquidated the cows, so they didn't have the calves. You don't have the calves, you don't have the supply."

While a cattle shortage is the primary and foremost reason for high beef prices, the harsh winter didn't help.

Over in Dubuque County, Paul Vaassen raises beef cattle. He said the long-lasting, bitter cold kept some of the animals from putting on weight over the winter.

"When you have the cold weather like we've had, you just don't get the rate of gain because it takes so much energy to just maintain body weight," Vaassen said.

That likely isn't playing a huge role in beef prices, however, both Vaassen and Goergen said.

Cattle in open lots have had a harder time this winter, whereas cattle kept in confinement buildings are more sheltered from the weather and have been able to gain weight. Many farmers either have confinement buildings or they're continuing to feed their beef cattle that didn't gain over the winter, hoping they'll put on weight as the weather warms.

Still, Vaassen said, some farmers might be selling their cattle now, before the animals gain more weight, just to take advantage of the currently-high prices. The size of those animals would be lower than average.

Both men say it'll likely take three to four years before the number of cattle nationwide goes back up and beef prices, therefore, come back down.

Pork prices are also high right now, whereas pork has traditionally been considerably cheaper than beef. The USDA says fewer hogs are going to market because a virus is killing many of them.

The Porcine Epidemic Diarrhea Virus (PEDV) has spread through 26 states, including Iowa. That's why the price of pork has increased five percent in the past year.

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