Live-cattle prices improved a little last week as supplies continue to tighten and the wholesale-beef market shows some signs of life. Fed steers averaged about $84.40 per hundredweight last week, compared with just under $83 the week before. Boxed-beef prices made some progress to finish the week averaging $143.67 per hundredweight for the Choice cutout, up about $1.50 from the previous week but still well below a year ago when the price was over $160.

Slaughter last week, at 654,000 head, was up slightly from the prior week but 3.3 percent below the year-ago total. With live and dressed weights slightly heavier, beef production was up less than 1 percent from the previous week, but 2.7 percent below that for the same week last year.

Total slaughter during July, at 2.92 million head, was down 5 percent from July 2008, according to USDA. Average slaughter weights during the same period were up about 9 pounds, resulting in U.S. beef production during July, at 2.27 billion pounds, 4 percent below the totals for July 2008. Total commercial red meat production for the month, at 4.12 billion pounds, was 3 percent less than during the same month last year.

The number of market-ready cattle will continue to tighten in the coming months. The Texas Cattle Feeders Association notes that showlists and formula offerings for last week in the TCFA area totaled 104,800 head, down 10.2 percent from the prior week and 5 percent from one year ago and the five year average.

Total numbers of cattle packers have under contract also are well down according to USDA reports last week. August contracts, at 119,000 head, were 40 percent below those reported for August 2008. September contracts are 51 percent below last year’s and cattle under contract for October are 36 percent below those for October 2008.