KANSAS CITY (Dow Jones)--Profitability for cattle and hog producers over the next few months appears to be elusive.

Corn prices have stabilized this week, but the rise from early September to Wednesday of this week makes it hard for market analysts and economists to calculate a profit for these producers, many of whom have lost money for two years or more.

That's not to say that some producers won't fare pretty well, the analysts and economists said. If they used the futures markets for their expected feed needs and locked in sales prices, some may have worked out a profitable outcome for fall cattle and hog placements into feedlots of finishing barns.

The result muddies the waters when talking about industry profitability.

"Profitability is impossible to speak to," said Gregg Doud, agricultural economist for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association. "One scenario says many producers haven't covered their feed needs" and are open to the problems created by the latest rise in corn prices.

"A second scenario says many producers locked in cheap corn several weeks ago," Doud said. "The astute risk managers took care of business weeks ago."

Corn markets now are very volatile and impossible to predict, Doud said. Poor harvest weather was the starting gun that fueled the latest rally, and then the market took on a life of its own when technical buying came in.

Adding to the equation is the weak U.S. dollar, Doud said. The dollar has been "clobbered" in recent weeks as foreign traders lost confidence in the U.S. financial system and the ability of the economy to dig itself out of the recession.

"The speed [of the fall of the U.S. dollar's value] is spellbinding," Doud said.

There could be a savior, however, Doud said.

"Don't underestimate the power of the hedge funds," he said. "They're looking for safer havens for their money in tough economic times, and that means commodities and gold."

John Nalivka, president of Sterling Marketing Inc., calculated breakevens for cattle producers suggest continued losses for unhedged producers for at least the next two months.

The situation for hog producers is similar, although more long-term, Nalivka said. He sees hog producers remaining unprofitable until sometime in the third quarter of next year. By then, production cuts may catch up to reduced demand for red meats.

The whole key is demand, Nalivka said. Both markets need a reversal in the declining demand structure seen over the last two years, but with the recession still bounding along the bottom and unemployment nudging 10%, meat demand in general, and beef demand in particular, isn't expected to rebound any time soon, he said.


This week's cattle slaughter was estimated at 629,000 head, compared with 634,000 a week ago and 631,000 a year ago. Year-to-date cattle slaughter is down 4.5% from a year ago.

The week's hog slaughter estimate was 2.295 million head, compared with 2.291 million a week ago and 2.357 million a year ago. For the year, hog slaughter is off 3.1%.


The USDA estimated total beef, pork and lamb production for the week at 971.4 million pounds. Last week's output was 974.4 million pounds, and the year-ago figure was 976.4 million pounds. Year-to-date combined meat output is down 2.8%.

Broiler/fryer slaughter for the week was estimated at 161.582 million head, compared with 161.008 million a week ago and 163.786 million a year ago.

-By Lester Aldrich, Dow Jones Newswires; 913-322-5179; lester.aldrich@dowjones.com