Feeder cattle review: Calf prices extremely volatile this fall

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Compared to last week, a light supply of yearlings along with a much heavier offering of calves weighing over 650 lbs and bound for confined feeding facilities sold steady to 2.00 lower.  Steer and heifer calves throughout the  Plains and the Midwest traded unevenly steady, while Southeastern calf markets saw their calves sell steady to 4.00 higher as backgrounders leave October in its own dust and wide ranging temperature swings. 

Calf prices have been extremely volatile this fall, but actually regional weighted averages for 400-600 lb calves are roughly only 2.00-4.00 higher than they were late in the summer after rebounding from the July drought selloff.  Most buyers have shown good demand and general desire to take lightweights through the winter, but feed/water shortages along with health challenges have kept the market in check. 

Most cattlemen agree that ownership of yearling feeders or middle-weight grazing cattle will be prime property come springtime, but cattle growers don’t want to bite off more than they can chew following two century-caliber droughts in our nation’s primary livestock production regions.  The once bright wheat pasture outlook is badly in need of a rain across the Southern Plains and farther north precious pond water is at its lowest point in memory.  Backgrounders don’t want to find themselves in the precarious position of hauling hay and water all winter long, like many cow/calf producers will be as they struggle to hold on to their core herd. 

Still, pre-conditioned lightweights with the right address can achieve handsome price levels as seen on Tuesday at the special feeder auction in Pratt, KS.  A reputation string of longtime weaned, A-I sired, black-hided steers from the Mule Creek Ranch outside Coldwater, KS, made their way to town.  A pot-load weighing 390 lbs brought 236.00, while 120 head of 461 pounders sold for 206.50, and 50,000 pounds of their 500 lb big brothers dropped the gavel at 188.00.

A decent rain or a wet blanket of snow would sure help the wheat to feed these calves the next five months, but nothing like the one Hurricane Sandy packed as it devastated the eastern seaboard.  Major beef cattle production is not prevalent in the affected areas, but most cattle auctions and packing plants were closed on Tuesday and several small ethnic-based slaughter facilities in New York and New Jersey may be shuttered for an extended period.  Undoubtedly, the gridlock in the densely populated cities will hamper meat sales in the region - even though shelves were cleaned out in anticipation of the storm. 

Indeed, boxed beef cut-out values have plunged about 8.00 since reaching near record levels last week.  The 5 Area direct slaughter cattle market was steady to 2.00 lower this week on light volume from 126.00-127.00 and 195.00-197.00 dressed.  This week’s reported auction volume included only 33 percent over 600 lbs and 40 percent heifers.      



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