Cattle prices and ranch profits are at their highest point in over a decade. And tight supplies of cattle suggest the good times will last for at least the next couple of years. But the downside to beef’s current joyride is the opportunity presented to competing meats – specifically, chicken.

Randall W. Goins, chairman of the National Chicken Council, says consumption of chicken in the United States will continue to increase while beef consumption falls over the next several years.

“Beef has gotten very expensive and the cattle herd is shrinking,” Goins says. “Beef prices will remain relatively high for the next several years, and consumption will drop as a result.” Goins cited statistics from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics showing that prices for nearly all types of beef products early this year were at their highest points in the last ten years.

The National Chicken Council also released the results of a survey showing that chicken outscored beef and pork on every attribute explored in the survey, which included versatility, taste, ease of preparation, being healthful and nutritious, price and consistency of quality.

The survey of 1,008 randomly selected adults was taken by telephone March 2-4, 2001, by Bruskin Research of Edison, New Jersey. The following is a summary of the percentages of consumers who agreed that certain attributes were true of chicken, beef and pork:

Attribute Chicken Beef Pork
Can be prepared in many ways 98 96 90
Tastes good 95 92 88
Is easy to prepare 94 90 81
Is healthful and nutritious 93 76 69
Is reasonably priced 86 62 71
Is consistent in quality 73 59 65

Last year, Americans consumed 82 pounds of chicken per person, and 69.5 pounds of beef per person. Chicken has steadily increased from 47 pounds per person in 1980, while beef has dropped from 77 pounds per person that year.

A chief reason for chicken’s success over the years has been convenience. The National Chicken Council says chicken dominates the convenience market, with chicken products accounting for approximately two-thirds of the heat-and-serve items in supermarket meat cases. Goins also says the chicken industry will raise exports from 18 percent of production in 2000 to 25 percent of production by 2005.

Chicken’s market share may indeed climb the next few years, as beef production declines. Fewer pounds of beef available means per capita consumption must decline. Market share, however, should not be confused with demand. Demand for beef has grown the past two years because the beef industry has developed products that satisfy consumers’ need for convenience. And those new products have added value to the chuck and the round, cuts that have generally been ground into hamburger in recent years.

Price will play a role in consumer demand over the next few years, especially if retail beef climbs substantially. But research confirms that consumers will pay for convenience, so providing more beef heat-and-serve products in the future will be important to maintaining demand.

Yes, chicken will benefit from declining supplies of beef over the next few years. But beef has proven over the past two years that it has turned the corner on demand. Beef product offerings are beginning to make a difference, and maybe the chicken industry is just beginning to take notice.