The winter of 2000-01 was long, cold and wet in cattle-feeding country, and the market could feel the effects weeks after the arrival of warmer conditions.

Marketings of fed cattle during February totaled 1.75 million, 15 percent below the February 2000 figure. Much of the decline was weather related, according to Kansas State University Economist James Mintert. No doubt, feeders would have liked to sell more cattle into an $80 market, but with winter weather and muddy conditions slowing gains considerably, they have delayed marketings on many pens.

In addition to slowing marketings, the weather also resulted in lighter weights for the cattle that did ship to the packer. Dr. Mintert says average dressed weights in early March were 8 pounds below a year ago and steer weights in mid-February were 13 pounds below a year earlier. Shorter marketings and lighter slaughter weights added up to an 8.3 percent year-to-year decline in beef production during January and February, he notes.

With feedyard inventories continuing to run 3 percent above year-ago levels as of March 1, marketings are sure to increase through the spring and summer months, bring-ing a decline in fed-cattle prices.

Weights, however, could remain lower for a while. Many of the cattle now in feedyards were placed at lighter weights than usual, which typically translates to lighter finished weights. In addition, the effects of weather-related performance losses can linger. Dr. Mintert recalls the winter of 1993, the last time that winter conditions caused serious problems for feedyards. That year, the severe weather was limited mainly to Kansas, but had enough of an effect to reduce national average carcass weights considerably. And, he notes, carcass weights remained below year-earlier levels through the summer. This year, weather problems were more widespread than during 1993, and initial reductions in average carcass weights have been greater.

Placements into feedyards also dropped during March, finishing 16 percent below March 2000 and 13 percent below 1999. Slower placements during a period when fed cattle were selling at $80 or more per hundredweight suggest that supplies of replacement cattle are tight.

It is too early to tell what effects the economic slowdown or recent publicity surrounding bovine spongiform encephalopathy and foot-and-mouth disease might have on U.S. beef demand. Most analysts believe consumer confidence and disposable income are closely linked with beef demand. But for most Americans, fluctuations in the stock market affect IRAs and long-term investments, but not monthly incomes or food budgets. So far, we have not seen widespread layoffs or reductions in personal income.

If demand remains strong, prices should hold in the low- to mid-$70s through the summer and improve as supplies tighten again during the fall.