With fed-cattle and boxed-beef prices on the rise and beef demand showing a continued upward trend, cattle feeders anticipate profitable marketings through next year. Now if they could just find some cattle to feed.

Actually, most feedyards have relatively full pens right now, with the U.S. Department of Agriculture reporting feedyard inventories at 104 percent of the year-ago as of Nov. 1. But that picture will change rapidly during the first half of 2001. Monthly placement totals began to decline during September after running ahead of year-ago figures through most of this year. Aggressive placement activity through the spring and summer of 2000 eventually depleted supplies of heavier feeder cattle, resulting in feedyard buyers turning their attention toward calves this fall.

Overall October placements were 9 percent below 1999 and slightly below 1998, according to USDA. Placements of cattle and calves weighing
less than 600 pounds, however, totaled 1.07 million head, up 5 percent from last year and 27 percent over October 1998. All other weight classes fell short of year-ago figures.

The inclination of feedyards to place calves is compounded by two other key factors-drought and inexpensive feed. Cow-calf producers in many parts of the country, particularly the Southeast and Southern Plains, faced serious drought and forage
shortages as they entered the fall season. At the same time, a near-record corn harvest offered the promise of cheap grain well into next year. These factors resulted in many calves shipping to feedyards, rather than to winter grazing programs.

Heavy placement of calves this fall will have several long-term effects on the market. One is that stocker operators will find tight supplies of short yearlings for their grazing programs next spring. Feedyard placements likely will run well below normal through the spring and summer, since cattle that feeders normally would purchase from backgrounding operations during that period already are on feed. Finally the fed-cattle market and the distribution of market-ready cattle could change next spring and summer. Many of the cattle placed this fall will not reach market weights until late spring or early summer. Also, calves tend to be more variable than yearlings in terms of rate of gain and time on feed, meaning that marketings likely will spread over a longer time period next year.

The Nov. 1 USDA Crop Production report confirmed that U.S. corn production in 2000 was smaller than earlier estimates. The report reduced the estimated average yield by nearly 2 bushels per acre, making it about 1 bushel below 1994's record. Neverthe-less, due to more planted acres, total U.S. corn production for 2000 will virtually match 1994's record and top 10 billion bushels for only the second time. Corn prices might fluctuate somewhat in the short term, but it looks like another year of relatively cheap feed.