Although severe winter weather and wildfires wore heavily on many ranchers this year, the prices across the market have generally been a reason to smile. That said, I believe it is time to follow up on my previous comments about profits across the industry. I preface these thoughts with - this is not intended as a doom and gloom outlook for the industry. Rather, just a few of thoughts on maintaining the beef industry’s forward momentum.
The cattle market’s strength was not happenchance. It was the result of feedlots that are very current, carcass weights well below a year ago, strong exports, and solid U.S. consumer demand. Each of these market conditions can easily change and when coupled with increasing cattle numbers, I don’t think I have to describe the likely impact on the overall beef market. Therefore, the goal would be to sustain the conditions that the industry has best control.
The four that I have identified are important. There are other factors but today, maintaining forward momentum rather than simply letting the market takes its course will at least require that 1) feedlots remain current, 2) carcass weights remain below a year ago, 3) U.S. beef exports remain strong, and 4) consumer demand remains relatively solid.
What will likely change the conditions listed? Together, a feedlot’s supply-marketing balance (how current they are), fed cattle prices, feeder cattle prices, breakeven prices, and weights go hand-in-hand. It doesn’t take much to turn the tide of stability into problems. Prices go down, feedlots begin holding cattle and weights start increasing in short order. Compound that situation with high break-evens driven by high feeder cattle prices. Short term decisions and reaction quickly turns into a downward price spiral.
High break-evens may not be the catalyst but they definitely compound the downward spiral. Breakeven prices are best managed by managing the first-cost of the feeder cattle going on feed rather than adding pounds to cattle already on feed. Furthermore, consumer demand for smaller cuts only further supports the case for smaller carcasses. And yes, I understand the economics of yield in beef production.
Weights and industry break-evens are the key to forward momentum. In raising the yellow flag for both, I would submit that maintaining the current situation of the past five months will be necessary for sustaining profitability as the industry enters the second half of 2017.