Cattle and Beef Markets

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


Early in the month of March, cattle and beef markets began to price a worst-case scenario.  Composite beef values rallied as retailers chased supplies.  Fed cattle prices softened as animals were pulled forward from the pool of already large supplies.  Wholesale margins widened considerably to the consternation of upstream and downstream market participants.  But the concern was clearly about supply chain disruptions in slaughter and fabrication.  Now, one month later, the market concern has clearly come to fruition.  Several North American beef plants are temporarily offline or are operating at reduced speeds.  The first week of April, steer and heifer slaughter were close to 550 thousand head.  The prior four weeks of March slaughter was close to or above 500 thousand head per week.  For the most recent week of April slaughter will likely be around 400 thousand head or lower.  We will have to wait until the end of the month to see the USDA data but these are reasonable estimates given the known impacts on plant operations.  Packer margin discussions are irrelevant when plants don’t run.

How long will reduced beef plant operations continue?  That is the next unknown the market is pricing.  Boxed beef values have given back half of the late-March rally.  And individual primal cut values are showing their relationship to at-home versus away-from-home consumption: end meats are strong and middle meats are weak.  Fed cattle prices continue to soften and the impact of delayed marketings will weigh on the market until summer.  I’ll get to talk about the normal spring rally in fed and feeder cattle next year.  Fed animal slaughter weights have started the seasonal decline but the inventory of long-fed cattle is climbing.  The Cattle on Feed Report at the end of this week are inventories as of the first of the month and flows from last month.  So, the uncertainty of pricing short-term needs and availability will be unclear for at least another month.  Some certainty to the course of the CORVID-19 pandemic will be needed to mitigate this risk.

I remember the record low hog prices of 1998.  We don’t often consider the possibility of something like that happening again.  Perhaps now is the time.  And any concern that producers have about cattle and beef prices needs to consider that happened in the oil futures market on Monday and Tuesday.  The May crude oil contract closed at a negative $37.63 per barrel on Monday, after trading down to a negative $40, and opened at a negative $14 on Tuesday.  Apparently, there was a long position that needed to be liquidated…  Regardless, the oil complex is trading below $15 in the nearby and below $30 for the rest of the year.  This is not good news for the economy.

The Markets

What do the technicals say?  I am watching my charts rather close as I think any good news be most clearly seen here while the fundamentals will still weigh heavy with pessimism.  Many of the 2020 live cattle contracts made a run at $75 per cwt and have firmer support at $85 or $90.  The volatility through March was impressive and appears to be moderating during April after the lows in the first week of the month.  This triangle pattern is typical of a market digesting information and consolidating for the next move.  Breakouts lower will coincide with more plant closures.  Breakouts higher will reveal improved supply chain functioning.  And regardless, upside potential is limited compared to the downside risk of further plant disruptions.



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Data Source: USDA-AMS Market News


5-Area Fed Steer
all grades, live weight, $/cwt
all grades, dressed weight, $/cwt
Boxed Beef
Choice Price, 600-900 lb., $/cwt
Choice-Select Spread, $/cwt
700-800 lb. Feeder Steer 
Montana 3-market, $/cwt
Nebraska 7-market, $/cwt
Oklahoma 8-market, $/cwt
500-600 lb. Feeder Steer 
Montana 3-market, $/cwt
Nebraska 7-market, $/cwt
Oklahoma 8-market, $/cwt
Feed Grains
Corn, Omaha, NE, $/bu (Thursday)
DDGS, Nebraska, $/ton
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