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Where’s the beef? Sky-high

BY ALISON KEIM | FEBRUARY 13, 2014 5:00 AM

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Beef prices are on the m-o-o-ve.

A shortage in cattle has led to a recent increase in beef prices leaving it at the highest it has been in the past several years.

A downward trend in the number of beef cattle has contributed to the shortage while affecting farmers and consumers. This is the 10th year of the downturn in cattle.

“The nation’s cow herd has the lowest number of cows since the 1940s,” said local beef farmer Steve Swenka. “Some of our Western states had a dramatic blizzard that went through there in October, and that killed off almost two-thirds of our cow herds. When that happened, it really increased pressure on an already limited number of cattle in our nation.”

The dwindling number of beef cattle is driving up prices.

“It’s really shot up in the past decade, but in the last couple of years, we’ve been over a dollar consistently,” said Denise Schwab, Iowa State University Extension beef program specialist.

Schwab said costs are roughly $1.40 per pound. Swenka said just this past week, beef was selling at record high levels of $1.55 per pound. In previous years, it was unusual for the pricing to be even $1.

Lee Schulz, an Iowa State assistant professor of economics, said from December 2013, the price of beef has increased 5.7 percent. However since 2009, prices have increased up to 29.6 percent.

“When you look at 2009, with the economic downturn in the economy, we’ve seen all commodity prices decrease,” Shultz said. “So really, since then is when the major increase started.”

In the meantime, farmers have taken steps to avoid shortage pitfalls, but they aren’t immune.

“During that time, we’ve become more efficient by increasing slaughter weights so we have somewhat navigated the impact,” Schulz said. “But just the sheer number of reductions that we are seeing is just now starting to have that major impact on beef supplies.”

When the prices in beef increases, it doesn’t only affect the consumer’s wallet, but the farmers who produce the cattle also take the hit.

“For consumers, it takes more of their budget to buy beef. If it gets too high, it comes down on me, the producer, because there’s not enough people buying,” said Iowa beef farmer Van Brownlee. “It’s just a continuous cycle.”

There are several dynamics involved for the shortage of the cattle including the drought that hit the Midwest last year as well as other critical weather conditions have taken a large toll on the community.

Farmers and beef experts said there is no exact predictability on how long the shortage will last, because it depends on the circumstances of the weather and the availability of feed.

“As we move into spring and summer, we have had less-than-optimal growing conditions, so we haven’t grown the herd as much as anticipated,” Schwab said.


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