A strong finish to the year

By : Stephen R. Koontz, Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics – Colorado State University

Without a doubt, the cattle markets are closing the year far stronger than I expected. Live cattle futures have pushed into new highs and cash fed cattle prices are back to tracking the price levels and seasonal patterns of last year. There were some unique market drivers that I discussed last month. Most are still present, are not typical, and are worth talking through again.
The market has handled the steady seasonal climb in fed animal dress weights, continues to move fed animals in a timely manner, the packing sector continues to run substantial Saturday slaughter, and we are on the cusp of Tyson’s Holcomb facility returning to substantial operations. Packer margins are softer but remain above $400 per head and atypically retailer beef margins continued to shrink. I see the retailer and food service as driving the strength into this cattle and beef market.
The boxed beef composite value increased almost $30/cwt in a three-week period prior to Labor Day and repeated that performance in the five weeks prior to Thanksgiving. The composite value at both peaks was an impressive $240/cwt. Loin prices barely moved but ribeye and tenderloin prices were a third higher than summer. Chucks, rounds, and lean hamburger trimming prices were also very strong. And all this in September, October, and November when beef supplies are substantial as are supplies of other proteins. Almost all news was positive except for the Choice-Select spread which showed its first weakness of the year declining to a seasonally strong $17/cwt. Again, this is the first real decline of the year. This is after spending most of the summer and fall above $22/cwt. The Choice-Select spread has normal seasonal strength in spring months when Choice supplies are tightest and then as supplies increase over summer the spread will decrease. The recent decline is the only weakness in a beef product market that has shown much atypical strength in the last two quarters of the year.
Cash fed cattle prices have returned to price levels observed in the fall and early winter last year along with expected seasonal patterns. Feeder cattle on the other hand have not followed behavior in downstream product markets with the fall run of animals. Only recently have feeder animal and calf prices creeped above that of the spring. Optimism is rather abundant though.
The Markets
What do the technicals say? Live cattle and feeder cattle futures have been in a very strong rally since the second week of September. I believe the retailer provided the underlying news justifying this move. But it is also that the closure of the Holcomb plant was well absorbed by the market. Nearby live cattle contracts have broken resistant planes formed at the peaks of last April. This is a buy signal and is what has to happen for the spring market to move higher. More deferred contracts are still resting below resistance and these maybe good selling opportunities for next summer’s fed cattle. Feedlot margins just moved into the black and tend to not stay that way long. I believe the market due for a move up are feeder cattle. Feeder cattle contracts are some distance from the highs of last spring, so the technical signal is not yet sell. But it remains reasonable that feeders will follow the live moves. At some point it is also reasonable that the strong moves through the last half of this year correct or soften after the holidays with the typical cattle and beef market softness of late winter.
Week of
Week of
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Data Source: USDA-AMS Market News
5-Area Fed Steer
all grades, live weight
all grades, dressed weight
Boxed Beef
Choice Price, 600-900 lb.
Choice-Select Spread
700-800 lb. Feeder Steer
Montana 3-market
Nebraska 7-market
Oklahoma 8-market
500-600 lb. Feeder Steer
Montana 3-market
Nebraska 7-market
Oklahoma 8-market
Feed Grains
Corn, Omaha, NE, $/bu 
DDGS, Nebraska, $/ton
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