Derrell Peel: Beef Markets Move Past Disruptions

Beef markets recovering
Beef markets recovering

Barring a major setback, it appears that beef markets are moving past the worst of the disruptions that caused upheaval in recent weeks.  Beef markets were thrown into turmoil in March as food service markets were sharply curtailed and beef demand focused on retail grocery. This caused bottlenecks in supply chains and an initial wave of disruptions in product flows.

Beginning in early April, COVID-19 began to impact work forces in many packing plants causing plant closures and reduced slaughter rates. Cattle slaughter and beef production decreased on a year-over-year basis for four consecutive weeks. The low-point occurred the last week of April when total cattle slaughter was down 34.8 percent year-over-year. 

Beef production that same week was down 33.8 percent compared to the same week one year ago.  Significant recovery has occurred from that low with estimated cattle slaughter the week ending May 30 down 10.9 percent year-over-year.  With cattle carcass weights increasing sharply due to delays in marketing fed cattle, estimated beef production last week was down just 7.6 percent year-over-year.

Choice boxed beef prices increased beginning in late March until late May.  After averaging under $210/cwt. early in the year, Choice boxed beef prices increased in late March, dropped briefly in early April, before increasing to a peak at $459.04/cwt. in mid-May.  Choice boxed beef prices dropped to a weekly level of $374.04/cwt. at the end of May. 

Individual beef products have been on a wide variety of dynamic paths through all the turmoil in both demand and supply since March.  Prices for beef products dependent on food service demand, including many middle meat cuts, dropped in March before general shortages of products pushed prices higher in April and May.  Choice wholesale beef tenderloin (IMPS 189A), for example, dropped from an average price just under $970/cwt. early in 2020, to a weekly low of $533.33/cwt. in early April before increasing to a mid-May peak of $1238.88/cwt.   Choice tenderloin prices have decreased to $1219.68/cwt. by the end of May.

Many end meats from the Chuck and Round, saw increased demand beginning in March continuing through April and pushed even higher by decreased beef supplies to mid-May.  For example, the price of Chuck Rolls (IMPS 116A) increased weekly, beginning in mid-March from a pre-COVID-19 average near $266/cwt., to a peak in early May of $628.94/cwt. before dropping back to $466.03/cwt. by the end of May.  Several products in the round displayed similar price patterns since mid-March.

The last few weeks have revealed much about the nature of specialized beef supply chains and much about the variable demands for the wide variety of beef products.  It has also revealed how market prices adjust to wild swings in beef product demand and supply conditions.  Additional dynamics are expected as food service continues a slow recovery and macroeconomic conditions continue to affect beef demand, but hopefully beef product markets are settling back into a much more stable situation and with typical product price relationships re-established. 

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