It’s an unprecedented market rally, and a story-line that never gets old – feeder cattle were $2 to $5 higher last week. Short yearlings weighing 650 to 850 pounds saw the strongest demand.

Feedyards and packers were locked in a week-long struggle with a light trade occurring late Friday afternoon at $124 per hundredweight, $2 lower than the week before. Packers are struggling with losses that exceed $100 on every animal processed.

The Choice boxed beef cutout closed Friday at $184.14, up $2.14 per hundredweight from the previous week. Select cutout traded Friday at $179.22, up $3.66 from the previous Friday. The Choice-Select spread narrowed to $4.92 per hundredweight, compared to $6.44 last week.

But the stocker and feeder cattle markets continue to draw the most attention and headlines as winter nears the mid-point.

“The unbelievably mild winter throughout the central portion of the country has been ideal for cattle growing with efficient weight gains posted at every level of production,” says USDA Market News reporter Corbitt Wall.

“The purchasing of grass stocker is in full bloom even though the first signs of green grass are at least 60 to 90 days out,” Wall says. “Fact is, most stocker buyers admit that they would be even more aggressive for turnout cattle if they were assured that the balance of the winter would continue mild.”

Last week’s auction receipts totaled 258,400, compared with 298,500 the previous week and 296,700 last year. Direct sales of stocker and feeder cattle totaled 50,000, with video/Internet sales at 14,800. The weekly total was 323,200, compared to 383,500 a year ago.

USDA’s cattle inventory report was released Friday afternoon showing 90.8 million cattle and calves, down two percent from the previous year. It was the 14th consecutive annual decline in cattle numbers.

Beef cows fell 3 percent to 29.9 million head, and the 2011 calf crop was pegged at 35.3 million head, 1 percent lower.