Mid-February usually brings the first signs of grass fever as cattlemen begin gathering cattle for grazing programs. But continuing drought across the Central Plains this year has removed most of the optimism from grazing cattle markets, and cattlemen are left in a dilemma. If they buy cattle and it doesn’t rain they’ll be forced to sell their herd into a softer market. If they wait until it rains to start buying prices could be substantially higher.

Last week the collective decision seemed to be to wait on rain as stocker and feeder cattle traded significantly lower. Compared to the previous week, feeder cattle and calves sold $5 to $8 per hundredweight lower, with many instances $10 lower on all classes and as much as $15 lower on lightweight stocker calves.

Heavy losses on cattle coming out of feedyards, and bleak prospects for the coming months, has forced feedyards to re-evaluate their buying habits. Many just sat on their hands last week despite an ever-tightening supply of yearling feeder cattle.

“Mainstream feeder buyers collectively decided to drastically adjust the one cattle feeding variable that they have the most control over in an effort to stop the flow of red ink on closeouts,” says USDA Market News reporter Corbitt Wall. “Price levels started the week sharply lower with additional weakness tacked-on as the week progressed. By Wednesday it appeared that the feeder cattle market had given up demand for lent as auction markets struggled to sell cattle even remotely close to recent weeks.”

Harvest-ready cattle sold at $123 per hundredweight last week in a light trade, $2 lower for the week. Dressed prices were quoted at $194 to $196 per hundredweight, $4 to $6 lower. Live Cattle futures prices trended higher for the week.

Boxed beef prices were called flat for the week and demand was sluggish. Choice boxed beef declined $0.17 on the week to close Friday at $181.95. Select boxed beef was up $0.78 for the week to close at $180.40. The Choice-Select spread was $1.55.

Last week’s auction receipts totaled 219,000, compared to 238,600 the previous week and 213,900 last year. Direct sales of stocker and feeder cattle totaled 12,900 with video/Internet sales at 36,400. The weekly total was 268,300, compared to 337,700 last year

Slaughter cows sold $2 to $4 per hundredweight lower, bulls sold $2 lower. USDA’s Cutter cow carcass cut-out value Friday morning was $167.49 per hundredweight, up $1.53 from the previous Friday.