Derrell Peel: Carcass Weights Resume Uptrend

Carcass weights trend higher
Carcass weights trend higher
(FJ)

USDA’s latest weekly steer carcass weights were 897 pounds, down four pounds from the prior week but 12 pounds heavier than the same week a year ago.  Heifer carcass weights in the latest weekly data were 833 pounds, up one pound from the previous week and 13 pounds heavier than the same week last year.  It appears that carcass weights have resumed a long-term increasing trend after moderating the past three years.

Average steer carcass weights in 2019 were 879.0 pounds, down 1.5 pounds year-over-year.  Heifer carcass weights in 2019 were 813.1, down 3.4 pounds from the previous year.  Monthly steer carcass weights were lower year-over-year for the first nine months of 2019 before moving sharply higher at the end of the year.  In fact, monthly steer carcass weights were lower year-over-year for 31 of 41 months from May 2016 through September 2019.  Heifer carcass weights were lower 26 of 38 months from August 2016 through September 2019.  However, steer and heifer carcass weights jumped sharply higher in November and December compared to the previous year and appear to have resumed the long-term trend of higher carcass weights.

Annual steer carcass weights peaked in 2015 at 892.0 pounds and have averaged lower since, especially from 2017 onward.  Heifer carcass weights peaked in 2016 at 821.5 pounds and have averaged lower through 2019. 

The moderation of carcass weights since 2016 has raised the question of whether the long trend of higher carcass weight was over.  Since 1960, steer carcass weights have averaged 3.8 pounds larger each year, increasing from 656.3 pounds in 1960 to 879 pounds in 2019.  Heifer carcass weights have increased an annual average of 4.5 pounds per year from 545.6 pounds in 1960 to 813.1 pounds in 2019. 

Other interesting trends in carcass weights have emerged over time.  Steer carcass weights have increased relative to bull carcass weights so much that annual average steer carcass weights in 2019 (879.0 pounds) were 1.7 pounds heavier than average bull carcass weights (877.3 pounds). Over the past 50 years, bull carcasses averaged 56.8 pounds heavier than steers but the gap has narrowed to just 18.3 pounds in the last decade.  Only one time previously, in 1976, did an unusual drop in bull carcass weights result in steers averaging heavier than bull carcasses. 

Heifer carcass weights have increased faster than steer carcass weights over time, closing the gap between steer and heifer carcass weights.  In the 1960s, heifer carcasses averaged 84.1 percent of steer carcass weights with heifers averaging 105.1 pounds lighter than steer carcasses.  In the last decade, heifer carcasses averaged 92.1 percent of steers weights, averaging 68.3 pounds lighter than steers.  Improved cattle genetics and feeding technology have allowed steer and heifer carcass weights to continue pressing higher. 

However, multiple research studies have shown that bigger carcasses and the larger beef cuts (bigger steaks) that result have some negative demand implications. If the larger carcass trend resumes, these issues will continue to grow resulting in increased product fabrication needs and alternative product marketing.

Heavier carcass weights in 2020 are expected to keep total beef production at or near record levels even as cattle slaughter decreases slightly.  Moreover, steer and heifer carcass weights in 2020 may indicate whether the industry is resuming the long-term trend of ever-larger carcasses.

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