Stocker operators are headed into the summer grazing season with high expectations. After a disappointing winter grazing season spoiled by poor performance and continuous weather problems, summer grazing programs appear poised for moderate success.

Analysts believe summer stocker programs, with calves purchased in February and March and expected to be sold as feeders in September or October, should make $15 to $20 per head. Those assumptions are based on corn prices remaining low and grass and weather conditions during the growing season allowing for average performance. Analysts warn that a $0.50 per bushel rally in the corn market between now and the end of September would lower stocker profitability to breakeven levels or below.

Prices for stocker and feeder cattle, however, have been bid up
in recent weeks, making potential profits hard to foresee. Steer calves weighing 400 to 500 pounds closed March with an average price of $111.09, according to Drovers' national 50-market auction summary. That's a gain of $3.21 per hundredweight from the February average, and an increase of $6.41 per hundredweight since Jan. 1.

Yearling steers also gained significantly last month, jumping $3.14 per hundredweight for the 600 to 700 pound category, ending the month at $91.09. Yearling steers have advanced $3.50 since the end of last year.

Similar gains have been found for all classes of heifers. Heifer calves weighing 400 to 500 pounds ended March at $99.83, a gain of $2.91 per hundredweight for the month. Heifer calves have increased $7.16 per hundredweight since Jan. 1.

Yearling heifers closed out March at $81.40 per hundredweight, an increase of $1.53 per hundredweight from the previous month, and a gain of $1.75 since the end of last year.

Stronger stocker and feeder prices support ideas that supplies of cattle are smaller this year. Declining volumes at auction markets and lower feedyard placements are further indications of the trend. Analysts expect to see support for stocker and feeder cattle prices in April due to the strength of the October Live Cattle futures contract.

Bearish news for stocker prices, however, was found in the latest U.S. Department of Agriculture's planted acreage report. Expected corn acreage is down through-out the Corn Belt, which would support ideas the corn crop will be lower and prices will be higher. That's potentially bearish news to the feeder cattle market in general, and could limit any near term price rally.