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Fewer but heavier cattle hit markets

Beef Outlook: Lower feed costs boost feeder cattle incentives for weight gain.

Scott Brown

June 3, 2024

2 Min Read
Cows eating from trough
LONG HAUL: Young feeder calves may spend more time in the feedyard as owners capitalize on strong prices for heavier cattle. Nordroden/Getty Images

Heavier cattle can lead to lower beef and cattle prices, but there are potential benefits.

While in general it is true that more beef leads to lower beef and cattle prices, and less profits to cow-calf production, higher cattle weights may not be all bad news.

Given that the beef supply is still declining despite heavier cattle, increased weights may help to smooth out beef availability for consumers and keep some consumers from being priced out of the market during these inflationary times.

However, there is a limit to how high weights can go.

Beef up cattle weights

Combined federally inspected cattle slaughter for March and April trailed year-ago levels by 4.4%, yet beef production was only down 1.3%.

A sharp increase in dressed cattle weights offset a majority of the decline in slaughter numbers and will likely continue to do so for the next few months.

In April, total cattle weights increased by 3.7%. Different cattle types showed varying weight increases:

  • Steer were up 3.1%.

  • Heifers grew by 2.8%.

  • Cows climbed by 3.3%.

With feedlots experiencing a lot of financial pressure because of lofty feeder steer prices, there is an incentive to feed cattle longer and strive to maximize the amount of beef per animal.

This incentive increased with corn prices falling for much of the last year. If projections for a large corn harvest this year are met, further decreases in feed costs could keep the feeder’s incentive to put on more weight in the feedyard relatively strong.

But there is a potential downside.

Limits on weight increase

Feeding cattle to heavier weights can boost overall beef production. The strategy is similar to pulling lighter and younger cattle into the feedlot to maintain beef output.

However, exceeding those year-ago weight levels becomes more and more difficult over time, and we begin to see annual declines.

Monthly dressed cattle weights, change vs. previous year line graph

Since 2005, the average gain in weights versus the previous year is 3.9 pounds. In 61.6% of months, weights were above year-ago, but 36.2% of the time they were below year-ago.

So while today’s heavier cattle may be moderating already lofty cattle prices, they are setting the industry up for weight declines down the road. And perhaps these declines will serve to bolster cattle prices at a time when they are in decline and producers need an extra boost.

Cows held back

We should continue to see relatively fewer cows in the slaughter mix as producers work to rebuild the beef cow herd during the next couple of years.

In the last major herd rebuilding phase, cow slaughter as a percentage of the total dropped to as low as 16% in June 2014 and averaged just 17.8% from May 2015 to November 2016.

There will be continued upward pressure on weights just due to fewer cows going to market in the next few quarters.

Brown is a livestock economist with the University of Missouri. He grew up on a diversified farm in northwest Missouri.

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