Commercial beef production in 2012 was likely down just over 1 percent from production in 2011. Despite slaughter that was down almost 4 percent, commercial dressed weights have averaged almost 18 pounds per carcass heavier than in 2011. Federally inspected steer weights through November 2012 averaged 17 pounds per carcass above same-period 2011 weights, and average dressed weights for federally inspected heifers and cows were 18 pounds and 12 pounds heavier year over year. This increase in steer and heifer weights may in part be a function of the growing use of ractopamine and other beta-agonists in cattle feeding. Cow weights are likely higher for two reasons: (1) more dairy cows—which are generally heavier— have been in the cow slaughter mix, and (2) as producers continue to cull cows, they are likely culling better (potentially heavier) cows than they were a year or 2 ago.

A number of factors are potentially affecting cattle and beef markets adversely—e.g., record-high retail Choice and All-fresh beef prices in November, concerns about consumers’ disposable income, prospects for higher pork production, adequate supplies of poultry, and the near-term prospects for continuing negative beef-packer margins. It is difficult to see how fed cattle prices can go much higher except at the expense of a significant reduction in slaughter numbers. December 2012 retail Choice and All-fresh beef prices, at $5.12 and $4.77, were already below November 2012 prices.